I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for VANILLA Ice Cream!

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SWBAT use the engineering design process to define a problem, brainstorm ideas and then choose their best idea for creating a plant pollinator.

Big Idea

Pollination can be tricky for some plants, like the vanilla plant. We can use the engineering process to help us design our very own plant pollinator!

Teacher Notes

Activity Description:

The children will be have so much fun designing a vanilla plant pollinator they will be screaming for more!  This is an end of the unit task, which will take about 3 days to complete from start to finish.  First they will watch a video that tells about the problems of hand pollinating vanilla.  Then the students will pretend to be employees of Ben and Jerry's ice cream and design a pollinator for the vanilla plant.  In this part, they will work on defining the problem and brainstorming ideas for their vanilla plant pollinator.  They will ask themselves questions to help them choose their best idea.

NGSS Connection:

As a culmination of the unit on interdependency, this lesson incorporates many of the NGSS standards and engineering practices. In the NGSS, the children must develop a simple model that mimics the function of an animal pollinating plants.  Thus in this lesson, they will define the problem and then brainstorm for possible solutions to solve that problem.  The children will be building upon prior knowledge of pollinators and the pollination process to help them create their model of a pollinator.  This model will be useful when they are communicating their ideas to the other children in the class.  In this challenge they will also realize that the shape of the object also relates to the function of their design.  And of  course, it will relate to the standard of plants and animals depending upon one another.


  • aprons and soda hats (totally optional but fun).  Since they are part of Ben and Jerry's workforce, I added this for fun.  They kiddos loved it, but it is not necessary!  I bought mine off of Amazon.com.







10 minutes

I like to stage the children's first big engineering challenge in the context of a real-life situation.  This engineering challenge integrates both the engineering design process standards and also deepens the idea of interdependence of plants and animals.  This 4 minute video is a great start.  It is sponsored by Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream whom depend on vanilla pollination to make its ice cream.

I begin by asking the children a question.

How many of you like vanilla ice cream?  

Beginning with a question that they can definitely relate to helps hook them into the lesson.  Most children at this age love vanilla ice cream, so I get their attention quickly.  After all, who doesn't like ice cream?

Did you know that vanilla ice cream is made from a plant seed called a vanilla bean pod?  Think about what we have been learning about, what do you know had to have happened for the vanilla flower to make a seed?  The children shout out, "Pollination!"

Yes, pollination had to have occurred for the vanilla plant to make a seed pod.   Then it is dried, stored and processed into the flavoring we all love.  It takes over a year before we get to taste it in our ice cream.  But in some countries they are having trouble pollinating the plant.  Watch the video and find out what the problem is.

The video explains how the vanilla bean needs to be hand pollinated.  It is hand pollinated since the vanilla flower is so slender that regular bees cannot fit into it.  Instead, there is only one species of bee in the area that pollinates it.  But there are not enough of them to pollinate the entire crop of vanilla on the farm, so the workers need to hand pollinate it.  Hand pollination is difficult and time consuming.  

Watching this video engages the children since it is real life, there is a problem for them to solve and it involves ice cream!!!!  It also helps lay out the elements they need to drive the engineering process.  It helps them form questions that will lead the engineering design process, has an easily recognizable problem that needs to be solved and it naturally leads to the idea of designing a solution.



35 minutes

After watching the video, the children will have to go through each of the steps in the engineering design process.

I give each student a folder made from construction paper folded in half with the Vanilla Plant Pollinator Challenge Folder Cover glued on the front.  This is the folder in which  they will keep all of their papers for this task.

Since the children will be writing on worksheets, they remain in their seats.  As a first step to devising their plan I give the students a sheet titled Vanilla Pollinator Define and Research worksheet.

I want you to pretend that you work for Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream.  You have been sent down to Uganda, Africa to see if you can design a hand pollinator to pollinate the vanilla flower. (I show them the Vanilla Flower PhotoThe way that the pollination is being done is very difficult and time consuming. There needs to be a more efficient way of hand pollinating.  I want you to design a new pollinator.

Think back to when we read the story Those Darn Squirrels (click here for the lesson link).  Do you remember how we used the engineering design process to create a squirrel-proof feeder?  We are going to be engineers again and follow that same process to design this new hand pollinator.  We are going to follow the same steps.  Think back to the first thing that we had to do in the process.  Who remembers what that was?

I always try to draw the students thoughts back to their own background knowledge.  They have already gone through this process once, so this repetition helps them to understand the process even better.  If they do not remember that the first step is to define the problem, you might want to refer to the Engineering Design Process Cards.

On this sheet you need to define the problem that we have as Ben and Jerry employees, just like we did for the lesson Those Darn Squirrels.  What is the problem that you think we are going to try to solve today?

I try to elicit that the problem is that they need to design a pollinator that can pollinate the slender vanilla flower.  I write this on the board for them to copy in the problem box.

Find where it asks you to write what the problem is on your paper. If you need help stating your idea, copy what I have written on the board onto your paper.

I want them to connect what we have already learned to help us design this new product.  I also want them to think deeper about what shape the flower has that makes it so difficult to pollinate.

We have been studying about pollination.  What insect did we learn about that is the number one pollinator of flowers?  They shout out, "Bees!"  Yes, all sorts of bees.  Bees are a fantastic pollinator, but why are the bees not able to pollinate these vanilla flowers?

We discuss the problem further by talking about how most of the bees are not able to pollinate because they are too large to fit in the flower.  If I need to nudge them closer to the answer I prompt them.

What shape does the flower have that makes it difficult to pollinate?  Why can't a typical bee pollinate it?

They should easily come up with the idea that the bees are too large or the flower is too slender.  This helps get across the idea that the size and shape of an object can influence its function.  

I ask the children about the next step in the process, which is to research what has worked in the past.  As a class, we research "hand pollinators" by visiting the websites below.  Here are some websites to do research on hand pollination:





As we move through the websites, we discuss the types of things that people have used for hand pollination.  

What type of materials have people used for hand pollination?  The children answer, a cotton swab, paintbrushes and cotton balls.  What do these items have in common that would make them suitable for this use?  

This thought process helps them understand the cross-cutting concepts about the shape and stability of structure of an object is related to its function.  They also have the opportunity to make observations from media to collect data which can be used to make comparisons.  They come up with the idea of soft things work well for hand pollinating.

Next the we move down the page to the next section.

The next section on the worksheet is where we would write down specific requirements of the project, such as height, weight and length.  I created this worksheet so it could be used with other projects throughout our year. But in this case, the bottom boxes will not be filled in since there is not any specific requirements given. They can write down that it has to fit in a slender flower as one of the requirements, one the line.

Next I put out the supplies listed in the teacher notes out on my front table.  These will be the supplies that they can use for the design.  I lay them out so they can get an idea of what will be available for the project.

After we have completed the Define and Research page, I pass out the next page titled Vanilla Pollinator Brainstorm sheet.  As we did in the previous engineering design lesson,  I have the children work by themselves to fill out the worksheet.  I really want to see what they are able to come up with on their own, without intervention from their peers or myself.  Most second grade students have great imaginations, but might be a bit timid to write them down for fear of being judged for their ideas.  I make sure I celebrate their thinking, no matter how "outside of the box" that it may be.

Now we have defined our parameters for the project.  We know what the problem is, what other people have done to solve this problem and what the requirements are.  I think we are ready to move on to the next step.  

Since I do not have any real vanilla flowers, we will be using a model of one.  This is our model of our vanilla flower.  (I hold up the test tube).  It is long and slender, just like the real flower.

Take a look at the materials that are on the front table.  These are the materials that will be available for you to use.  Today you will not be using them, but you may look to see what we have so you can incorporate them into your design.  

We are going to have to put on our "thinking caps" for the next part.  We are going to let whatever ideas that we have for this pollinator design rush out of our brains and onto our paper.  Who remembers what we call this?

Right, it is called brainstorming.  I brainstorm all of the time when I am creating.  I think of all of the ideas that I can and jot them down.  I try to figure out as many different ideas that I can so I have lots of ideas to chose from.  Some of them are kind of crazy and some of them may not work.  But the more ideas I get down, the more I have to chose from.  Also I find that one outlandish idea might just be the one to spark a terrific idea.  Remember when we brainstorm we write down whatever comes to our minds without any judgements from ourselves or our neighbors.   

On this page they brainstorm their ideas that would help them create a pollinator that would be effective.  I have them try to brainstorm 4 ideas, although it is acceptable to not fill in all of the boxes.  I walk around the room asking questions to help guide them and get them on track, if necessary.  If they are having trouble coming up with their own ideas, we'll take another look at the photo of a vanilla flower.  I ask them to think of what materials that they can think of that might be skinny enough to fit in the flower.  I suggest that they might want to combine several different materials together to form one design.

I tell them, ”When you are finished you need to look at each of your ideas and imagine how each would solve the problem. Use your imagination to try to get a “movie” in your mind of how each pollinator works.  Ask yourself these questions to help you figure out if your idea is workable or not.

  • Can you actually see this idea working? Exactly how would it work?  Can you see yourself hand pollinating the flower?
  • Does it have some drawbacks or problems? 
  • Is there a way to make it work better? 
  • Is there an idea that you have written down that clearly works better?

Engineers must think about all of these questions to help them choose their best idea.  I would like you to work like an engineer and choose your best idea using the questions we just talked about.  Circle that idea using a red crayon so it stands out easily. 

I tell the children to put both papers in their folders.  Then I have them hand their folders in to me, since we will be working on them tomorrow and I don't want any of them to be lost.



15 minutes

We have completed only the first part of this design project but I still want to go over the steps we have done so far.   I use the Engineering Design Process Cards since the children have only used this process once and need some reminders.  I have noticed when we were reviewing them at the end of Those Darn Squirrels Are Great Engineers, some of the children were still a bit confused about each of the steps. The cards are a great visual for them and help jog their memory.

 I have noted which poster to hold up from the set to aid in the discussion. 

OK, my Ben and Jerry employees, I think you have done a great job working today.  Let's review what we have done.  I challenged you to design a new pollinator using our engineering design steps.  Let's go over all of the steps we have completed so far.

First we had to really look at what it is that we are trying to do or accomplish.  Who remembers what the first step is in figuring out what it is that we are trying to do?

Yes, the first step is defining or figuring out what the problem really is.  Without knowing what the problem is makes it super hard to solve a problem. You cannot figure out what you don't even know. So you must understand clearly what it is that needs to be done.

I hold up the Engineering Design Define poster.

Also you need to look at what has worked before.  What is one way that we can do that?  

Research!  I hear a boy in the back saying he loves to do research.  I tell him I love to research too to figure out facts and ways to get me started on my new project.

I show them the Engineering Design-Research poster.

Almost every project has as least some restrictions or limits.  The challenge didn't come with a list of specifications, but rather we had to figure out what we need to create to make the object effective.  We call that finding out the specifications.  

I hold up the Engineering Design-Get the Specs poster.

Remember the true story about me measuring the space where I needed a shelf and then going all the way to IKEA to get it?  I brought it home, put it together and it didn't fit in the space allotted for it.  I forgot to measure the baseboard on the walls and it was about 1/4 inch too big.  It didn't fit by only 1/4 inch!  This is why you need to find out if your project has to be a certain height or weight.  It would be terrible to design something like a bridge and it was too small to span the water.

Then you had to think of all of the ways to solve this problem of creating a vanilla pollinator.  You had to write down all the different ways that you could think of.  What do we call this?  Brainstorming!

I hold up the Engineering Design-Brainstorm poster.

And lastly you had to ask yourself questions about each of your designs.  You had to pick out the idea that you thought was the most workable.  You circled that idea with a red crayon.  We call this choosing your best idea.

I hold up the Engineering Design-Choose Best Idea poster.

Ben and Jerry's would be so proud of us.  We thought of so many creative ways to solve this problem.  Tomorrow we are going to be developing our ideas into real plans.