Fourth Grade Home Builders


“First we had to make blueprints,” Millie said as she showed me the model house that she and her team of fellow fourth graders designed and built. “We learned about energy saving so everything had to be made out of recyclable materials.”

The rudimentary structures I was looking at resembled cardboard doll houses, complete with miniature furniture, curtains, and rugs, all crafted out of bits of paper, fabric, and plastic. They were quite detailed.

The most eye-catching feature in another model home was a small box filled with blue-dyed cotton balls.

“This is the bathtub,” builders Brett and Rico told me, which is exactly what I thought it was.

Millie, Brett and Rico attend Moore Elementary School in the Brentwood School District. I met them last fall at the STEAM Showcase, an annual event that gives recipients of Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) $20,000 STEAM grants the opportunity to display their award-winning projects.

“Several years ago, our mission was to infuse technology in the classroom,” said school librarian, Megan Casey. “But we are a smaller school district compared to neighboring districts. We knew we couldn’t do it with one person.”

So Ms. Casey, art teacher Barbara Girone, technology teacher Kate Smeltz and music teacher Britta Schneider joined forces. In 2015, several of the teachers set up a GoFundMe page and raised over $20,000, including a grant from the Sprout Fund, which they used to buy Surface tablets and Hummingbird electronics kits. That was just the beginning.

In 2016, the STEAM grant not only helped fund the 4th grade house project, but also gave them a chance to expand STEAM education to the 1st and 3rd graders, as well.

What impressed me most about the 4th grade house project was its cross-disciplinary approach. Every teacher participated by designing a curriculum that contributed to the project.

In art class, Ms. Girone invited an architect to visit the 4th graders and talk to them about energy efficiency. The students researched various architectural styles, like Fallingwater and the famous Dymaxion House and had to consider what features a smart house would have. In technology class, they learned how to use Scratch, a coding program that they used to make lights turn on and off. In math class, they had to learn how to measure scale, which they translated on the blueprints. For example, the kids learned that an 8 foot wall was the equivalent of 4 inches on the blueprint. In music class, they learned about acoustics.

“They had to plan one ‘loud room’ which might have tile floor and less furniture, and a ‘soft noise room’ which might be carpeted and have more furniture and curtains,” Ms. Casey said.

Each team of four or five students appointed a Head Engineer, who helped facilitate team building exercises, like the “maze” in which each team had to give verbal instructions to help a blindfolded student get through a maze taped on the floor.

“It was pretty comical at first,” Ms. Casey said. “But once they got the hang of it, they realized they had to look at it from the blindfolded person’s perspective.”

As I examined the houses, I was impressed with the kids’ creativity and imagination. A lid from a yogurt container made a tabletop. Some clever kid thought of using the top of a shampoo bottle to make a lamp. It really did look like a tiny lampshade.

When you ask fourth graders to use their imaginations, though, you’re bound for some surprises.

“My team built a secret money room in our house,” Millie told me, pointing to a small room with a hidden compartment.


I try to find out if the money was supposed to be used for a specific purpose, but it appears these fourth graders built a secret money room to simply hide money.

Hey, why not?

Don’t worry, kids. Your secret money room is safe with me.

Pittsburgh writer, Ann K. Howley, forgot to ask Millie if her team calculated how much money would fit in their secret money room. Now she’s curious.