I have looked through many holiday-themed ideas: cutting out snowflakes, decorating trees, making paper strip stars, etc., but the one I like the best is constructing a gingerbread house out of graham crackers. Gingerbread houses are part of many holiday traditions and associated with winter, so it is a reasonably safe choice for most classes.
While planning how to implement the Gingerbread STEAM project, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the following:
The great thing about this Gingerbread House STEAM activity is that you can differentiate it for different student abilities or grade levels. While most online searches showcase STEAM activities for the elementary grades, this project is suitable for students through middle school. You could tailor it to a single grade level if you are a regular classroom teacher or you could use it in a multi-age classroom, enrichment, or after-school program.
Instructions for building graham cracker gingerbread houses are quite easily found online. Even Martha Stewart has a video up on how to prepare them! Instead of crafting a set of instructions for constructing the gingerbread houses, students can just watch a video! However, what you won’t find included on these videos is how to tie the gingerbread house holiday STEAM activity to the math standards throughout the grades.
One of the reasons I like this idea for a holiday STEAM activity is that the materials are not too expensive. You will need some graham crackers, some school glue (white glue), and some materials to decorate the houses with, which I will talk about later. Each team will also need a serrated knife to score and cut graham crackers.
Step 1: Decide What Size of Houses Students Will Build
One of the first decisions you need to make about your gingerbread house is whether you want students to build big houses or a small ones.
The advantage of a small house is that it is easier to build and requires fewer supplies, but its downfall is that there are smaller surfaces on which to display mathematical ideas. On the other hand, the large house uses more material and is much more difficult to build, requiring internal supports to strengthen the structure. If you have the time and are working with middle school students, I would definitely consider building the larger house.
This photo shows the relative size of the small and big houses. The smaller gingerbread house uses seven graham crackers. The large structure uses sixteen graham crackers, including some on the inside in order to provide stability.
Though the photo shows the finished side of the graham crackers on the outside, in retrospect, I would use the unfinished side as it is flatter and easier to decorate.
Step 2: Connect to Standards
Here are some the general ways that the math standards can be addressed across the grade levels. General ideas are given as well as how to differentiate them. To see the specific standards for the mathematical activities, please refer to the download for this post.
One extension for students who finish early or need an extra challenge would be to construct a chimney for the house. They could use a caramel soft candy in the shape of a rectangular prism and modify it to attach to the roof. This will make an interesting three-dimensional shape that they can describe, find the surface area, and find the volume.
Example of Arrays used to decorate the gingerbread house...
This picture shows how arrays can be used to decorate the house. The door is a 5 x 3 array while the eaves of the house have a 13 x 1 array and a 11 x 1 array. The door is an example of a composite number array, while the eave decorations are examples of prime number arrays. In Grades 2 or 3, you could just use arrays to make doors, windows, or trim, but beginning in Grade 4, the idea of prime and composite numbers is introduced and would be good to use through the end of middle school. This is an example of how the activity can be differentiated for the various grade levels.
General Ideas to Address Other Content Standards
In addition to the math standards, student can connect to art, technology and design standards. By making sketches of their plans before they build, documenting building using photos or videos, and then taking a picture of the final product, student can use artistic representations to describe the design process and how they made modifications to their plans as the project proceeded. Students can incorporate their designs, photos, and/or videos to present an electronic portfolio of the project, highlighting the mathematical and design knowledge they used.
Although this is a STEAM project and does not properly contain a “W” for writing, having students create a portfolio of the project gives them a great opportunity to write about their project describing the phases, challenges, and ways they have met the standards.
Finally, regarding standards, I would refer you to a previous post about rubrics for STEAM projects. There you can find specific indicators for how students are meeting the standards in engineering, the Standards for Mathematical Practice, speaking and listening, writing and artistic techniques.
Step 3: Construct a Rubric
Step 4: Gather Materials
The materials for building a gingerbread house are quite simple. You will need seven plain graham crackers for a small house and sixteen or more for a large house.
To decorate as suggested in this post—and for including mathematical concepts—you will need two types of decorating materials: small pieces to make arrays and designs, and some kind of icing (optional).
Many house features can be made using arrays: rectangular arrays in including straight line arrays, and other types of array such as triangular or other designs like circles. I saw many different elements that would work, such as “sprinkles” in the baking aisle of my grocery store. Nonetheless, mini chocolate chips were much less expensive. They are perfect because they are flat on one side, making them easy to glue to the house. Other kinds of sprinkles are certainly more colorful, but be sure that they are easy to handle, not too small, and will be easy to glue to the house.
I would say that icing is optional. It does allow for creating more and different types of designs (circles, hexagons, and patterns that demonstrate different kinds of symmetry), but it will require more work on your part to prepare the icing. You can search for recipes for “royal icing,” that typically contain confectioners sugar, corn syrup, milk, and a flavoring, but search for eggless recipes so you don’t have to worry about bacteria in raw egg whites. You can use water instead of the milk and there is no need for flavoring in this case. A few drops of food coloring create different colors of icing. Students can use sandwich bags with a tiny hole poked in a corner to apply the icing to the house.
You will of course need some glue to put together the houses. I prefer white school glue over icing to put the house together. If you decide not to use icing at all, simply use glue, which many schools have in stock. It takes quite a bit of glue, at least a couple of ounces, to make a larger house.
One thing that I like to do with STEAM projects is create a store so that students must purchase products. Since groups are not provided all the materials required in building their structures they are more likely to be strategic with their design concepts and planning. The store is also good practice for unit rates.
If you decide to create a store for this STEAM math project, provide groups with exactly enough graham crackers for the house, some glue, and the serrated knife. Students will then need to plan how they will buy the other supplies from the store including extra graham crackers, extra glue, mini chocolate chips, and icing.
Use chips or counters as “dollars.” Give each group $10 and they could buy two graham crackers for $3 or 15 mini chocolate chips for a $1. You could also sell icing and extra glue.
Here’s the list of supplies you need included in the Gingerbread House store:
Graham crackers—seven per group for a small house,16 per group for a large house
Glue—two ounces minimum per group for a large house or less for a small house
Mini chocolate chips—my 10-ounce bag had over 2,500 chips
Newspaper or a platform to build the house on and protect the table
(Optional) Icing—buy it, or make it yourself for more options in the project
(Optional) Sandwich baggies to use to apply the icing
Counters to serve as dollars for the store
A ruler to measure lengths and widths
With the call for STEAM activities increasing, we find ourselves under pressure to come up with fun, meaningful, and content-rich projects. During the holiday season there is the additional challenge of being culturally sensitive with the various religious holidays that we can neither embrace nor avoid.
The Gingerbread House STEAM Activity is seasonal, interesting to students, and has the potential for you to assess their ability to meet standards.
The purpose of this article was to help you incorporate Common Core math standards into a gingerbread house math STEAM project. I did not intend to present you with a specific lesson plan, but provide you with the resources you can use to create your own project.