PYP Students Focus on Innovation

March 19, 2021

Grade 5’s unit on innovation is an exploration of physical science, including Newton’s laws of motion. It’s a unit where Primary Years Programme (PYP) students learn about two innovators from the past, inspiring the students to be innovative in the present. It’s a hands-on way to demonstrate what they’ve learned in class and to make them more self-determined for their futures in the Middle Years Programme (MYP). 

sCIENTIFIC METHOD & Newton’s Three Laws

The innovation unit is based on Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion:

  1. An object will not change its motion unless a force acts on it. 
  2. The force on an object is equal to its mass times its acceleration. 
  3. When two objects interact, they apply forces to each other of equal magnitude and opposite direction.

Students experiment with the three laws using the scientific method. They ask questions, develop a hypothesis, gather resources and plan the steps they will take – what they can control and what they can change. Grade 5 teacher Lin Kay explains, “It was very much about experimenting. Students learned about what a fair test is. When you set up a test and they have controlled variables and some independent variables, they can only change one thing.”

The class was broken up into groups and each group designed an experiment based on one of Newton’s three laws. Each group used a step of the scientific method to explore whatever question they were experimenting with.

“For example, some students were rolling a ball down steps,” Ms Lin said. “So they realised that the ball had to stay the same, the distance had to stay the same, but the thing they would change is the type of step or type of surface. Then they gathered their results to draw conclusions.” 

Another student group made a tornado in a bottle and attempted to show that any object needs a force to put it in motion. The students looked at the effects of gravity and air pressure. 

A different student group experimented with a balloon attached to a toy car, focusing on Newton’s third law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The students were hypothesising that if the air comes out of the balloon and it goes one way, then the car will go the other way. 

Another group experimented with outrunning a ball. The students investigated Newton’s first law, that objects in motion will keep going unless something stops it or slows it down. This group of students was looking at the effect of friction and measuring how fast a person could run compared to a ball. They were measuring the speed of a person and the speed of a ball over different surfaces.  

Finally, one student dropped a pencil out of the window, hypothesising that the heavier an object is, the faster it would go. 

The innovation unit falls under the transdisciplinary theme called ‘How the World Works’, an inquiry into the natural world and its laws. Wayne Quenneville, PYP Coordinator explained, “This unit allows the students to investigate using their curiosity, develop questions and think about conceptual questions like: What is innovation? How does science support innovation? What connections exist between the scientific method and a design process?” 

Like all the Grade 5 units, the transdisciplinary learning brought literacy and mathematics to life for these young students. They spent time reading and then writing their own non-fiction reports to document their experiments. For many, they found it amazing to include their own tables of data from the experiments and the associated graphs they developed to evidence their conclusions. 

Rube Goldberg Machines

For part two of the innovation unit, students designed a Rube Goldberg machine. A Rube Goldberg machine is a chain reaction-type machine or contraption created to perform a simple task in an indirect and overly complicated way. 

The class was split into two large groups and was given three days to go from planning to execution. According to Mr Quenneville, “That pressurised time approach allows the Grade 5 student to practice their self-management skills and further develop their understanding of the value of time, as well as time-management and collaborative learning strategies in action.”

Using the MYP Design Cycle, students structured their inquiry. They did a lot of research into different types of Rube Goldberg machines to see how they worked, what they are made from and what some of their purposes were. Then they looked into what they could use around the classroom to create their machines. Next, they designed and made diagrams of what their machines would look like and what the contraption would do, before they built their machine. The idea was that in pairs they’d each build different parts of the machine and then they’d join it together, while also learning the importance of teamwork. 

There were two approaches to learning skills (ATLs) in this lesson. One was supporting others and the other was resilience. This teaches students that when you have setbacks you learn not to give up and to keep trying. In all learning experiences, students are encouraged to develop their approaches to learning skills (ATLs). The various communication, thinking, research, self-management and social skills students acquire help them to become independent learners.

Students made sure to follow these success criteria for their Rube Goldberg machines:

  • Our machine has a clear purpose
  • Our machine uses a range of forces: gravity, friction, magnetism, air pressure, inertia
  • We have a clear written/drawn plan for our part of the machine
  • We can explain how our part of the machine connects to Isaac Newton’s Laws
  • We have made sure that all the different parts fit together to make the whole machine
  • I have evidence of how we used the different parts of the Design Cycle
  • I was supportive of other people in my team
  • I showed perseverance and did not give up when things did not work


In the IB PYP, there are six units per year; by the time they reach Grade 5, students have done 48 Units of Inquiry over an eight-year period. By the time students are in Grade 5, educators at AIS are making sure these students, who are about to head off to the MYP, understand the key elements of an IB education: the approaches to learning and developing 21st-century skills. Communication and collaboration are essential in the MYP and that’s part of what they learned in the innovation unit.

It’s an opportunity for the students to take the knowledge from their prior experience and put it into practice in a very independent, yet collaborative way. Mr Quenneville explains, “In the sense independent, they weren’t supported by the teacher. Collaborative, they were working in two groups, with students working together. In that context, they’re using a lot of skills about communication, collaboration and negotiation, things they had learned in other units, things that we’re building up for the Exhibition.”

The PYP Exhibition is the culminating event of any PYP student’s journey through the programme before they enter the MYP. “Essentially, you take the elements which are: student action, approaches to learning skills, developing understanding about the world around them,” Quenneville explains. “ATLs are the spine of the IB continuum. These are the 21st-century skills that allow students to progress, become independent, autonomous learners and really drive that self-determination, to decide where action needs to be embedded in their lives. The things they need to do to make a difference in the world. The MYP carries that on in terms of service as action and that builds up to the MYP personal project.

The Personal Project is the culminating event for the MYP student before moving on to the Diploma Programme (DP). Here, students have two very intense years in the Diploma Programme, where they produce an academic research paper: the Extended Essay. These are the three hallmarks of an International Baccalaureate Continuum education: PYP exhibition, MYP personal project and the extended essay