Hands-on Activity Choosing a Pyramid Site

Quick Look

Grade Level: 4 (3-5)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Expendable Cost/Group: US $1.25

Group Size: 2

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Geometry, Number and Operations, Physical Science, Problem Solving, Reasoning and Proof, Science and Technology

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle

Photograph of a man on a camel in front of five pyramids in a desert.
Students evaluate pyramid sites
Copyright © 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.


Working in engineering project teams, students evaluate sites for the construction of a pyramid. They base their decision on site features as provided by a surveyor's report; distance from the quarry, river and palace; and other factors they deem important to the project based on their team's values and priorities.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers use their critical thinking skills to evaluate potential building site locations before structures are built. They determine the ideal site characteristics required for the structure and compare the features of each available site. Site characteristics might include its topography and material composition, its distance and accessibility to construction resources, and its suitability for the structure's purpose. Engineers' choice of a site may involve trade-offs, because even though a site does not meet all requirements, is still may be the best of all the available options.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Provide examples of how engineers are faced with many choices when deciding on a final design.
  • Evaluate how some early decisions affect later choices in the design process.
  • List different factors and considerations that affect a decision, prioritize them, and decide among competing factors.

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.

NGSS Performance Expectation

3-5-ETS1-1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost. (Grades 3 - 5)

Do you agree with this alignment?

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process, or system and includes several criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Alignment agreement:

Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account.

Alignment agreement:

People's needs and wants change over time, as do their demands for new and improved technologies.

Alignment agreement:

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/cub_simple_lesson01_activity2] to print or download.

Pre-Req Knowledge

General knowledge of pyramids.


Imagine that you are living in 6,000 BCE and have been hired as chief engineers for a pyramid building project. The construction of the pyramids was an amazing feat, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. How did people move the massive 9,000 to 18,000 kilogram stones (equals 10-20-tons or one to two elephants!) into position? How were they arranged into such a precise and beautiful shape? It would be an incredibly complicated project to build the pyramids today, even with modern equipment and technology, but think about how difficult it must have been to do it 8,000 years ago. Instead of using today's automated, high-powered tools, trucks and cranes, they used simple machines and the hard labor of many people. Can you imagine? During this unit, we are going to get a taste of how difficult that massive undertaking was as we design and build a pyramid, as if we were living in ancient times.

Building a pyramid is a huge project, so let's take it step by step. The first step is to choose a location. Maybe you have heard this advice before: "The three most important factors of any real estate are location, location, location." There are many considerations in choosing a location. The location at which we decide to build our pyramid influences its structural safety and stability (will it hold up), its accessibility (closeness) for transporting materials to the site, the difficulty to build the pyramid, its total cost, and how convenient it is for people to visit.

For your project today, a surveyor was commissioned to examine four possible sites at which the pyramid could be built. He will provide the engineering project teams with his evaluation of each site. As chief engineers for the project, it is up to you to select the location for the pyramid. Let's make some decisions about what characteristics we want in our site. We should consider:

  • How close do we want the site to be to the quarry (the source of the stones)?
  • Must the site be flat or can we make an angled foundation work?
  • Could our foundation be made of sand or must it be rock?
  • Do we want the site to be near or far from the river, and why?
  • Are there reasons why we would want the pyramid to be close to the palace? Or, would it be better to be far from the palace?
  • Should the pyramid be located near or far from a city?

Like engineers, determining the answers to these questions helps us identify the features we want in a building site. Next, we can rank these preferences so it is clear which are the most important to our project team. We will use the surveyor's descriptive information to compare the sites. We will base our site decision on the logic of our team's values and priorities, which we will communicate clearly to the Egyptian leader when we explain our reasons for choosing that site.


Before the Activity

A view of the Giza pyramids from the plateau to the south of the complex.
The Giza pyramids
Copyright © Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_pyramids#/media/File:All_Gizah_Pyramids.jpg

With the Students

  1. Divide the class into engineering project teams of two students each.
  2. Explain the worksheet. Make sure students understand the map symbols, distances and information.
  3. Have the student teams complete the worksheet, picking a site and answering the questions, including writing reasons for their site selection.
  4. Conclude by having student design teams create a poster recapping their site choice and features, and make presentations explaining their site selection to the Egyptian leader (teacher). See the Assessment section for details.


bedrock: The solid rock found under loose top material, such as soil, sand, clay or gravel.

design: (verb) To plan out in systematic, often graphic form. To create for a particular purpose or effect. Design a building. (noun) A well thought-out plan.

engineering: Applying scientific and mathematical principles to practical ends such as the design, manufacture and operation of efficient and economical structures, machines, processes and systems.

engineering design: The process of devising a system, component or process to meet desired needs. (Source: Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc.)

engineering design process: A decision-making process used by engineers. Combines an understanding of basic sciences, mathematics and engineering sciences to use available resources (material, people) to meet a desired goal, usually resulting in a product or system. (Source: The Design Process, Micron Technology, Inc., http://www.micron.com/students/engineer/design.html)

foundation: The base on which a structure is supported.

oasis: A fertile or green spot in a desert due to the presence of water.

plan: (noun) A method worked out before hand for the accomplishment of an objective.

prioritize: Ranking items in order of importance or preference.

quarry: A pit from which rock or stone is removed from the ground.

simple machine: A machine with few or no moving parts that is used to make work easier (provides a mechanical advantage). For example, a wedge, wheel and axle, lever, inclined plane, screw, or pulley.

site: A place where a structure is planned to be located.

surveyor: An engineer who precisely determines the area, boundaries, distances, elevations and features of land by observation, measurement and mathematics. Often documented in map form.

terrain: A particular geographic area. The surface features of an area of land.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Brainstorming: Before they receive the surveyor's map, have small groups of students engage in open discussion to generate possible ideas about good building site features. Ask them to think about the physical processes involved (cutting and moving stone). Point out that they might never find a perfect site that has every feature they wish, but knowing what would be ideal is the best place to start. Encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Remind students that no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard.

Roundtable: Have students pair up. Ask the class the open-ended questions in the Introduction / Motivation section. Have each student team make a list of their answers to the questions, by alternating who writes down the answers. As a conclusion, have the teams share their responses with the class and point out how different engineering project teams come up with different criteria.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Review students' worksheet progress to gauge their mastery of the subject. Make sure they identify features they want in the site and use these criteria, along with the worksheet information about each site, to base their decision. Also, make sure they compare their site with the other sites and are prepared to defend their choice.

Post-Activity Assessment

Site Selection Presentation: With students still in their roles as chief engineers, have them make presentations to the Egyptian leader (teacher) explaining their reasons for choosing a particular site. To prepare for the presentation, have each engineering team draw a large-size graphic of the surveyor's map on poster board, and write their team conclusions about their top choice. During their presentation, they should answer the following questions about their selected site:

  • What is the advantage of this site?
  • What are some possible disadvantages?
  • How might these disadvantages be overcome?

For the other sites they should answer these questions:

  • What, if any, were some positive features of this site?
  • What were the negative features of this site?
  • Why did you decide against this site?

Troubleshooting Tips

Students may forget that they are making decisions as if they were in 6,000BCE. For example, choosing a site and defending it by saying, "We could use a plane to fly the stones from the quarry to the site." or "We could use big trucks to drive all the stones to the site." or "We could use a bulldozer to clear away all the sand on the site." Remind them that they can only use resources available in ancient Egypt, such as simple machines, boats and human power.

Some students may have difficulty coming up with criteria on which to base their site decision. Pose questions to help them focus and prioritize their preferences.

Activity Extensions

For a class project or individual assignment, have students examine more closely the environmental and weather conditions in the Egyptian desert because these are additional factors to consider in a huge construction project. Where would the pyramid workers live (temporary or permanent shelters)? How would they have access to food, water and shelter, and still be near the construction site? Would working conditions be better in one season vs. another (high temperatures, blowing sand, flooding, drought)?


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More Curriculum Like This

Upper Elementary Lesson
Let's Move It!

Students explore methods employing simple machines likely used in ancient pyramid building, as well as common modern-day material transportation. They learn about the wheel and axle as a means to transport materials from rock quarry to construction site.

Upper Elementary Lesson
Pyramid Building: How to Use a Wedge

Students learn how simple machines, including wedges, were used in building both ancient pyramids and present-day skyscrapers. In a hands-on activity, students test a variety of wedges on different materials (wax, soap, clay, foam).

Upper Elementary Lesson
Simple Machines and Modern Day Engineering Analogies

Students apply the mechanical advantages and problem-solving capabilities of six types of simple machines (wedge, wheel and axle, lever, inclined plane, screw, pulley) as they discuss modern structures in the spirit of the engineers and builders of the great pyramids.

Upper Elementary Activity
Stack It Up!

Students analyze and begin to design a pyramid. Working in engineering teams, they perform calculations to determine the area of the pyramid base, stone block volumes, and the number of blocks required for their pyramid base.


Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Accessed January 12, 2006. (Source of some vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation) http://www.dictionary.com


© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado.


Glen Sirakavit; Lawrence E. Carlson; Jacquelyn Sullivan; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise Carlson, with design input from the students in the spring 2005 K-12 Engineering Outreach Corps course.

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: August 10, 2017

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