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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Engineering Mini-Challenges for Back to School

The way that you choose to start off the year in your classroom helps set the tone of the room. In my classroom, I wanted to set the tone for collaboration and creativity. I wanted students to know right from the start that we were a team, we would collaborate often, we would learn to solve problems with a little creativity, and that it is okay to fail because that is how we learn.

For those teachers wanting to delve into a little engineering this year, these are also great activities for introducing the design-thinking process. These challenges get students thinking about how to work with a team, how to manage resources, how to use iterations to make corrections on a design, and how to reflect on the process in order to improve next time. 

Below is a list of some of my favorite back to school engineering challenges:
Paper Tower
  • The Marshmallow Challenge: Students are given dry spaghetti, tape, string, and marshmallows and are challenged to create the tallest free standing structure within a certain amount of time (I gave 12 minutes). Materials were distributed in a brown paper bag and teams were not allowed to open the bags until time started. And no, students are not allowed to use the bag in their design (I modeled failure as a learning opportunity when I messed up those directions last year). The official Marshmallow Challenge web page has videos, photos, and details about the challenge.
  • Paper Book Tower: In a simplified version of this activity, we provided 10 sheets of paper and some tape to each group and gave them 5 minutes to create a structure that would support at least 1 textbook. Winning team is the one who's tower can support the most weight! 
Earthquake Engineering
  • "Saving Fred": Technically not an engineering challenge, but a fun, collaborative, problem-solving activity nonetheless. Fred is a gummy worm stranded on top of his capsized boat (a plastic cup) who needs to get to his life preserver (a gummy lifesaver). The challenge is to get Fred into his life preserver without touching him with your hands. Teams are given 4 paper clips in order to move Fred.
  • Earthquake engineering challenge: There are a lot more in depth engineering lessons out there for this one (linked to one example), but I decided to keep it simple for back to school. Teams were given 1 package of 4x6 index cards, 1 foot of masking tape, and something sturdy to use as a base (we used clipboards). Students were given 20 minutes to create a structure at least 12 inches high that would withstand our simulated earthquake (used iPad cart as a "shake table"). 
  • Lego/playing card bridge: I don't know where this one came from originally, but we played it at a PD and I liked it so much that I tried it with my students. In the first variation of the challenge, teams are given a piece of 8" wide paper (river to cross), 5 playing cards, 4 paper clips, 6 dominoes, some Legos (including 2 flat Lego pieces for the river bank edges), and a strip of painter's tape (around 6"). Teams must build a bridge across the river that will support a Lego car. In a second variation on the game, each team is given a different size river to cross, but the same amount of materials as in the first version. In this version, it's fun to see how the challenge morphs from a team collaboration project into a whole class collaboration project! 

  • Lego Bridge Challenge
Challenges I've Collected, but Haven't Tried Yet
I've collected a number of mini-engineering challenge resources over the years, but haven't been able to try them all. Here are a few more to check out:

Have more mini-engineering challenge ideas or resources? Share them in the comments section below!

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