Hands-on Activity: Stress, Inc.

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Photo of a girl sitting on steps with her hands to each side of her head.
How can stress affect you?
Copyright © 4 Girls Health, www.4girls.gov/ mind/.


Students explore the physical and psychological effect of stress and tension on human beings. Concepts of stress and stress management are introduced. Students discover how perception serves to fuel a huge industry dedicated to minimizing risk and relieving stress. Students complete a writing activity focused on developing critical thinking skills. Note: The literacy activities for the Mechanics unit are based on physical themes that have broad application to our experience in the world — concepts of rhythm, balance, spin, gravity, levity, inertia, momentum, friction, stress and tension.

Engineering Connection

Since a team doesn't accomplish much when they are stressed and strained, successful engineers develop good teamwork skills. They communicate well with a variety of people, are open to new ideas, are good listeners, help each other, have fun with each other, build strong relationships, and keep themselves healthy. When a team of engineers works well together, they are able to handle the physical and psychological effects of working on a complex, challenging project.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Students apply skills in analysis, synthesis, evaluation and explanation to their writing and speaking.
  • Write and speak in the content areas using the technical vocabulary of the subject accurately.
  • Understand the physical and psychological effect of stress and tension on human beings, and how stress and tension play a role in engineering teamwork.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

  • Paper and pencils
  • Access to the Internet
  • Determining Your Stress Level Test, one per student
  • [optional] Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death? video of 20/20 television special, John Stossel report for ABC News, March 1996 (available for free on the Internet via various media sites)


Feeling a little stressed-out lately? In this activity, you will look at some of the reasons why. You will learn to distinguish real risks from imagined risks, and near risks from remote risks. Are life's daily hassles getting you down? You will learn ways to deal with the true stresses of life.

Tips: put your body in motion, fuel up, laugh out loud, have fun with friends, spill to someone you trust, take time to chill, catch some zzzs, keep a journal, get it together, lend a hand, learn ways to better deal with anger.
11 Tips for Dealing with Stress. See details at www.4girls.gov.
Copyright © 4 Girls Health, www.4girls.gov/mind/.

Of course, some stress is good. Stress on a muscle makes both the muscle and its attached bone stronger. Too much stress, and the muscle tears or the bone breaks. A little stage fright can get adrenaline flowing, sharpen your senses, make you react more quickly and improve your performance. But, too much stage fright and you freeze. A little stress can make you healthier; a lot can make you ill.

You are learning about mechanical stress, strain and tension. There was a time, 50 years ago, when "only bridges were stressed" (Source: Stress Inc.: The Commerce of Coping, 1998 New Media Workshop, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism). In 1956, Han Selye published The Stress of Life. His concept caught on: Not only were bridges and other mechanical structures subject to stress, human beings were as well. Suddenly, everyone realized just how "stressed out" they had been. When they decided to do something about it, the multi-billion dollar stress management industry was born. Before you knew it, almost everyone was either doing yoga or talking about doing it. They still are. Let's figure out why.

Note: Just as Mechanics unit, Lessons 7 and 10 are linked, the literacy activities for the two lesson plans are linked and should be taught in sequence. Mechanics unit, Lessons 7 and 10 discuss the mechanical forces of stress, strain, compression and tension. The associated literacy activities discuss the physical and psychological effect of stress and tension on human beings. The Lesson 7 literacy activity focuses on teamwork and group action as a way of counteracting stress through strength in numbers; Lesson 10 literacy activity focuses on the individual.


Adrenaline: Hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, which lie at the top of each kidney. Stress can stimulate excess production of adrenaline, which can have a damaging effect on body tissues.

Anxiety: A state of uneasiness about uncertainties.

Appeal to fear: An argument that attempts to persuade by invoking feelings of fear; scare tactics.

Assessment tool: A questionnaire used to determine the amount of something: a stress assessment tool.

Chronic: Lasting for a long period of time or marked by frequent recurrence, as certain diseases.

Daily hassles: Minor daily stressful events; believed to have a cumulative effect in increasing the likelihood of illness. (Source: McGraw Hill Online Learning Center – Health Psychology Glossary, http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072412976/student_view0/chapter6/glossary.html)

Ergonomics: (used with a singular verb) The applied science of equipment design, as for the workplace, intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort. (used with a plural verb) Design factors, as for the workplace, intended to maximize productivity by minimizing operator fatigue and discomfort: The ergonomics of the new office were felt to be optimal.

Fight or flight response: A response to threat in which the body is rapidly aroused and motivated via the sympathetic nervous system and the endocrine system to attack or flee a threatening stimulus; the response was first described by Walter Cannon in 1932. (Source: McGraw Hill Online Learning Center – Health Psychology Glossary, http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072412976/student_view0/chapter6/glossary.html)

Hormone: A substance produced by one tissue and conveyed by the bloodstream to another to effect physiological activity, such as growth or metabolism.

Immune system: The integrated body system of organs, tissues, cells and cell products such as antibodies that differentiates self from nonself and neutralizes potentially pathogenic organisms or substances.

Perception: The act of becoming aware of something directly through any of the senses, especially sight or hearing; to achieve understanding of something.

Profile: A biographical sketch presenting the subject's most noteworthy characteristics.

Pseudonym: A fictitious (pretend, made-up) name, especially a pen name.

Risk: The possibility of suffering harm or loss.

Stress: 1) A mentally or emotionally disruptive or upsetting condition occurring in response to external influences and capable of affecting physical health, usually characterized by increased heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, muscular tension, irritability and depression. 2) The amount of force applied over the area of an object (computed by dividing force by area).

Stress management: Various techniques and practices used in a systematic manner to relieve, reduce or generally gain control of stress.

Stress markers: Physiological changes, emotional reactions or cognitive responses that are believed to indicate the amount of stress an individual is experiencing; stress markers are indirect measures of stress, because stress cannot itself be directly assessed. (Source: McGraw Hill Online Learning Center – Health Psychology Glossary, http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072412976/student_view0/chapter6/glossary.html)

Tension: 1) Mental, emotional or nervous stress or strain, as applies to people: working under great tension to make a deadline. 2) A force that pulls materials apart; a physical condition of being stretched or strained, as applies to materials or structures; expansive force.


In the Observing section, students research the topic of stress to become familiar with key concepts, including stress markers (symptoms) and methods of stress management. They begin to understand the role played by the fight or flight response in stressful situations, the effect on the body of stress-related hormones such as adrenaline, and the impact of stress on the immune system of the body.

In the Thinking section, students learn to think critically about the nature of risk and how perception of risk helps to create a culture of stress that fuels a multi-billion dollar industry. Students learn to distinguish real from imaginary risks in order to better deal with their own perceptions and experience of stress.

In the Writing section, students synthesize what they have learned in the form of a profile or essay.


  1. Learn as much as you can about stress and stress management. Start with the American Institute of Stress at http://www.stress.org/, and Star (Stress and Anxiety Research Society), http://star-society.org/. Some questions to answer:
  • What is the role played by the fight or flight response in stressful situations?
  • What is chronic stress? What are some of its symptoms (stress markers)?
  • What effects do stress-related hormones such as adrenaline have on the body?
  • What role does perception play in stress? How does it relate to anxiety?
  • What effect can stress have on your immune system?
  • What are some ways — good and bad — that people deal with stress?
  1. Become familiar with the telltale signs of stress. Take the "stress test" provided by your teacher. Use your math skills to total your results.

The objective is for students to become familiar with how stress affects mind, body and behavior, and apply that understanding to the next step, below. Refer to Health and Human Performance (McGraw Hill) and Stress Labs and Student Success: Get Through – Do Well (McGraw Hill). http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072412976/student_view0/lab_exercises.html#STRESS

  1. Do you know anyone who is under a lot of stress? Observe him or her — or yourself, if you are feeling stressed — for a day or two. How many stress markers (signs of stress) do you notice? How do you, or the person you are observing, typically deal with stress and tension, if at all? Does he or she (or you) go for a walk, draw a picture, read a good book, take a few deep breaths? Take notes in your journal to prepare to write a profile of your research subject. Be sure to keep the information confidential! Do not mention the person (or yourself, unless you choose to) by name. Use a pseudonym, instead of the real name, just as professional researchers do.


Stress management has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Why do you think people spend so much money on stress management? Do you think life is becoming increasingly stressful? If so, why do you think that is the case?

What role do media play in intensifying stress? Do you think mass media helps create a climate of fear? Are people getting too stressed out about the thought of stress itself? Are we scaring ourselves to death? That's the question John Stossel, ABC News reporter and co-anchor of the magazine show 20/20, raised in his first television special.

Stossel discovers that the things people fear the most (flying, exposure to chemicals, crime) are actually far less dangerous than the more mundane dangers such as driving or smoking. He finds that the media exaggerates danger for the sake of viewership and that government reacts to the public hysteria by passing laws and creating federal regulations to eliminate the risk. Therefore, time and money gets spent on perceived risks rather than on the real ones.

The television special was first aired in March 1996 — before September 11, 2001 — but it is still relevant in terms of questions about technological threats. If your school is not able to obtain the video of the program for viewing in class, you can still get a discussion going based on what you have learned about stress in this activity. To get some ideas for discussion topics, look at the three very brief clips of the program at Into the Classroom Media, http://www.classroommedia.com/.


There are two options for the written part of this activity:

  1. Write a profile of how the stressed-out person you observed deals with stress.


  1. Write a three- or four-paragraph essay on one of these topics:
  • "Scaring Ourselves to Death" (What are the true risks of modern life?)
  • "Stressed Out about Stress" (Is our culture obsessed with stress?)
  • "Shop 'Til You Drop" (The high cost of commercial solutions to stress.)

Every essay or paper is composed of three main parts: introduction, body and conclusion. An introduction paragraph usually begins with a general statement about the topic and ends with a more specific statement of the main idea of your paper. The purpose of the introduction is to inform the reader of your topic and point of view, and engage his/her curiosity so that s/he will want to read about your topic. The body of the essay may be just one or many paragraphs – as long as is necessary to develop your ideas in detail. Prove your points with specific examples or quotations. Use transition words for a smooth flow of ideas from paragraph to paragraph. In the final paragraph of your essay – the conclusion – summarize your main points and restate the main idea of the paper. See the References section for essay guidelines.


Troubleshooting Tips

Young students are becoming increasingly aware of stresses in their lives, though they may not understand them as such. The object of this activity is to make students aware of the problem of stress, but not obsessed with it. They learn that there are some simple but effective methods for dealing with the stresses in their lives and become more aware of how to avoid negative reactions to stress.

In the wake of the September 11 tragedy and while the U.S. is at war in Iraq, students have heightened perceptions of the risks of contemporary life. This activity provides ample opportunity for sensitive discussion that can help students deal with their genuine concerns.

Plan on one 50-minute class period to introduce concepts and one 50-minute class for discussion.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Call-Out Questions and Quiz: Reinforce basic concepts and vocabulary introduced during the Observing activity with call-out questions and a vocabulary quiz.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Call-Out Questions: Use call-out questions during the Thinking discussion to test students' understanding of the concepts.

Post-Activity Assessment

Writing: The students' written profiles or essays demonstrate their understanding of the concepts.

Discussion Questions: Ask the students, and discuss as a class:

  • How is the physical force of tension similar and dissimilar to the idea of tension affecting people? (Answer: Tension has more than one definition; both involve types of stress. The scientific definition of tension is a force that pulls materials apart, a physical condition of being stretched or strained, as applies to physical materials or structures. Another definition of stress is mental, emotional or nervous stress or strain, as applies to people.
  • If an engineer was designing a bridge or a bungee jumping rope, which definition of tension would apply to his/her work? (Answer: The scientific one, the force that pulls materials apart.)
  • If an engineer was designing an elevator cable, how would an understanding of the concept of tension apply to her/his work? (Possible answers: S/he would need to take into consideration the expected stresses and strains on the cable [such as the weight of the elevator and the people riding in it] and how s/he wants the cable to perform, and design a solution that is strong enough to be safe for a long period of time.)
  • Provide examples using each definition of tension. (Possible answers: The bridge cables were stiff because they were under so much tension. Everyone was nervous; you could sense the tension in the room.)
  • Describe examples of tension in your own life. (Answers: Vary with students' experience.)

Activity Extensions

The human body is not really a machine, but in some ways it resembles a machine and obeys mechanical principles. Think about the ways the human body can be affected by the same kinds of stresses that affect a bridge, a table or a chair. Think about what happens when you lift a heavy weight or when a strong wind pushes against your body. How does it feel when you play "dog pile" and someone sits on your chest? What do you think is happening to your ribs under the pressure of the weight? What is happening to your legs when you lift the heavy weight? What do you have to do to resist the force of the wind and remain upright? Think about the ways that an engineer reinforces a bridge to make sure it remains standing even under the weight of heavy cars and trucks, or the force of a strong wind. Discuss with your class ways in which stress affects the mechanics of the body.

Collect advertisements that make use of the appeal to fear. Examples: Life insurance, suntan lotion, a medical service or a home security system. Bring the ads you collect to class and discuss whether the appeal to fear is justified in each case.

Does a junk-food diet increase stress on the body? Conduct some research on the effect of diet on stress and overall health. Are you a junk-food junkie? Take a week and record in your journal everything you eat. Report your findings to your class.

Friends can help friends who are feeling stressed. If you know someone who is going through a difficult time, write him/her a letter of support. Or, design a special greeting card to brighten up your friend's day.

Prepare a Yogimagine Skit. Use various pictures of yoga poses (availabe on the Internet) to develop an imaginative skit that ties various poses together in a sequence. This skit should not focus on the theme of stress; it should have an imaginative story line. In other words, the person in the "Snake Pose" would represent a snake in the story; someone in "Mountain Pose" would represent a mountain; someone in "Peacock Pose" would represent a peacock; and so on.

Have you ever done a Google define: search? It is a good way to go beyond a dictionary definition of a word and learn how people actually use it. A define: search can also give you a better sense of the nuances of a word, subtle meanings in the way the word is used. These subtle meanings are also called connotations of the word, as distinguished from the basic dictionary definition, which is called the denotation. To do a define: search, simply type the word "define" followed by a colon [:] into the search box, followed by the term you wish to search (for example define: ergonomics). Read through the various definitions and compare these with the definition from http://www.dictionary.com (also in the Vocabulary section). What terms do the definitions have in common? What are some of the nuances of particular definitions? How do these differences depend on the focus of the website at which the term is defined? What have you learned about the science of ergonomics just by reading through the definitions and looking at some of the associated websites? Do a define: search of another word or term that interests you.

Activity Scaling

  • Scale the activity up or down through the choice of essay topics. The profile, which is based on direct observation, may be a bit easier to write than the essay because the profile is developed from direct experience.


Allen, Jeffrey S. and Roger J. Klein. Ready, Set, Relax: A Research-Based Program of Relaxation, Learning and Self-Esteem for Children: (Directed to teachers and parents) Inner Coaching, 1997.

The American Institute of Stress. AIS, Yonkers, NY. Accessed May 21, 2004. http://www.stress.org/

Appeal to Fear. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed May 21, 2004. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_fear

Appeal to Fear (Scare Tactics). Department of Humanities, Cuyamaca College, El Cajon, CA.

Are you sitting down? Engineering Works! Technology in Action. Texas A&M Enginering.

Children's Stress Symptoms, The Stress Test. North Dakota State University Extension Service, http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/yf/famsci/fs573w.htm#Children's, accessed May 21, 2004.

Form: Tradition and Innovation, Writing Argumentative Essays. Updated April 14, 2004. Paradigm Online Writing Assistant, http://www.powa.org, accessed May 21, 2004.

Handling Stress, Mind-Emotion Commotion. Updated September 2004. 4 Girls Health, The National Women's Health Information Center (NWHIC), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.

Health Psychology. McGraw Hill Higher Education, Online Learning, http://higered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072412976/student_view0/chapter6/glossary.html, accessed May 21, 2004.

Lite, Lori and M. Hartigan. A Boy and a Bear: The Children's Relaxation Book. (Ages 4-8. These relaxation techniques can be used with older children.) Plantation, FL: Specialty Press, Inc., 1996.

Ready to Take a Risk? Engineering Works! Technology in Action. Texas A&M Engineering, http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu/episodes/2004/risk/index.html, accessed May 21, 2004.

Romain, Trevor. Bullies Are a Pain in the Brain. (Ages 9-12) Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 1997.

Romain, Trevor. How to Do Homework Without Throwing Up. (Ages 9-12) Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 1997.

Romain, Trevor. Stress Can Really Get on Your Nerves! (Young adult) Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2000.

Selye, Han. The Stress of Life. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 1976.

Star (Stress and Anxiety Research Society). University of Calgary, Division of Applied Psychology, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, http://star-soceity.org/, accessed May 21, 2004.

Stress Labs. McGraw Hill Higher Education, Online Learning, http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/007241297/student_view0/lab_exercises.html#STRESS, accessed May 21, 2004.

The Stress Test. North Dakota State University Extension Service, http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/yf/famisci/fs573w.htm, accessed May 21, 2004.

Williams, Mary L. and Dianne O'Quinn Burke. Cool Cats, Calm Kids: Relaxation and Stress Management for Young People. Impact Publishers, Inc., 1996.


Jane Evenson; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise W. Carlson


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: May 18, 2017