In the primary classroom, students may be involved with a science topic over several weeks. They need to be supported to develop their scientific understandings in a connected, coherent manner throughout this time (Cowie, Moreland and Otrel-Cass, 2013). One approach that helps students engage with the science ideas over time is to conclude the unit with students making and using an artefact that utilises the key ideas they have learned. As a culminating activity, a functioning artefact is a way for students to test out their ideas in a practical way.

The research

This case study research was undertaken over several weeks to investigate how a primary teacher used the Science Learning Hub in her classroom with her 25 year 4 students (15 boys, 10 girls). This was the first year that Mary (a pseudonym) was teaching such young students. This study investigated how she used the Harnessing the Sun resources. Classroom observations and interviews were conducted with Mary and the students. Analysis of the data for this brief was guided by the research question: How did making and using a functioning artefact help the students understand the key science ideas they were learning?


Analysing the artefact (a solar cooker) when planning to ensure key science ideas are investigated

Mary carefully examined a solar cooker to ascertain its various parts, how it worked and the science ideas she would focus on. She then planned a set of nested science investigations that encompassed these underlying ideas, such as heat absorbency, insulation and reflection. She thought about their contribution to the task of making a functioning solar cooker.

Student explorations and investigations to understand how the cooker worked

Each of the investigations the students undertook contributed to them building their ideas about solar energy and cooking. Mary used plenary sessions at the beginning and end of each lesson to provide students with opportunities to make connections between ideas and investigations. A worksheet task that focused students on analysing how and why a cooker would work bridged between these investigations and the construction of the cooker.

Sustained time for making and using the solar cooker optimise its functionality

The students constructed their cookers in groups over several lessons using a completed cooker for a model.

  • Mary painted large pizza boxes black and cut the lid to size to alleviate unnecessary technical issues.
  • As students constructed their cookers, Mary questioned them about how they thought it was going to work.
  • Once their s’mores were in their cookers, they took them outside.
  • The issue of the best spot to place the cooker and finding out the optimum slope for the lid proved challenging, as did how to hold the lid in place. By discussing how they could use their shadows as sun-direction indicators, the students solved the placement issue.
  • Talking and observing others led to students using weights to anchor a string that held the lid in position.
  • To their surprise, the cookers got hot enough to make steam and melted the chocolate and marshmallows.

Once the students had completed their cooking and eaten the s’mores, they shared their results. In this plenary, students used evidence to describe how their cooker worked and what they could do to make it work better.


A functioning artefact can be used to develop and consolidate students’ understandings of a set of related science ideas. The sustained collaboration and inquiry among students and their teacher led to the students successfully executing the final task and learning the science of solar cooking.

Related content

Students made and used a solar oven. This activity, Making solar ovens, contributed to the students building their ideas about solar energy and cooking.

These articles were part of this case study:


Cowie, B., Moreland, J. & Otrel-Cass, K. (2013). Expanding notions of assessment for learning: Inside science and technology primary classrooms. Rotterdam/Boston/Taipei: Sense Publishers.

Kolodner, J., Camp, P., Crismond, D., Fasse, B., Gray, J., Holbrook, J., Puntambekar, S. & Ryan, M. (2003). Problem-based learning meets case-based reasoning in the middle-school science classroom: Putting learning by design™ into practice. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12(4), 495-547.


    Published 7 April 2014