Hands-on Activity: Modern Day Pyramids

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

Photo of a tall, pointed skyscraper, high above other city buildings.
Empire State Building, New York, NY.
copyright
Copyright © U.S. Department of Transportation, http://www.tfhrc.gov/

Summary

Students investigate the ways in which ancient technologies — six types of simple machines and combinations — are used to construct modern buildings. As they work together to solve a design problem (designing and building a modern structure), they brainstorm ideas, decide on a design, and submit it to a design review before acquiring materials to create it (in this case, a mural depicting it). Emphasis is placed on cooperative, creative teamwork and the steps of the engineering design process.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Ancient technologies are still incredibly important in modern-day work. Engineers most often use simple machines in the combined form of complex machines, to implement their design solutions. These machines enable engineers to design more complicated products, because the machines simplify the manufacturing or construction process into smaller, more manageable pieces. The engineering design process is a series of steps that engineering teams use to guide them as they solve problems. Creative teamwork and the engineering design process are important methods that can be broadly applied to many problem-solving pursuits.

Pre-Req Knowledge

General understanding of pyramids. An understanding of the six simple machines, their various uses and how they may be combined to form complex machines, which may be accomplished by completion of Lessons 1-5 (and associated activities) of the Simple Machines unit. Ability to work constructively in teams, including brainstorming and design work.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Describe the use of simple machines in single and complex applications.
  • Describe how simple machines used long ago can contribute to the design of structures in modern-day engineering.
  • Explain the basic steps of the engineering design process.
  • Describe how a group of real-world engineers proceeds with the design process, including brainstorming, decision making and design review phases.
  • Explain the value of and effectively work in teams, using creative brainstorming and analysis to find a solution to a problem.

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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.

  • 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) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The engineering design process involves defining a problem, generating ideas, selecting a solution, testing the solution(s), making the item, evaluating it, and presenting the results. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • When designing an object, it is important to be creative and consider all ideas. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

For the entire class to share:

Introduction/Motivation

Photo looking up at a very tall city building.
A modern skyscraper.
copyright
Copyright © National Gallery of Art, http://www.nga.gov/education/classroom/new_angles/ act_lewitt_concepts.htm

We all know what simple machines are, right? (Review: Wedge, wheel and axle, lever, inclined plane, screw, and pulley.) We know what they do — they make work easier by providing mechanical advantage. Now remind me, where can we use simple machines? Anywhere! Well, almost anywhere... it would be hard to use a lever in outer space because it might float away.

Since we all know how simple machines work, I bet we can remember a few ways they have been used in the past. The Great Pyramids are a good example. Could a wedge have been used to cut the stone out of a quarry? Could the giant stone blocks have been rolled over the ground using logs as a wheel and axle? Could a lever have helped lift the blocks up to build more levels? (The answer to all these is yes.) Well, what if we wanted to build something completely different? Could we use simple machines? We know we could use simple machines to build a pyramid, but what if I wanted to build a castle, or a skyscraper or even a big cruise ship?

How do we go about designing and building something big — a castle, or a skyscraper or even a big shopping mall? What are the steps our design team of engineers would take? (Answer: After students have suggested ideas, write on the board the main steps all engineers go through in designing buildings and products, and solving problems. 1) Understand the need, 2) brainstorm and design, 3) plan, 4) create and 5) improve.) Discuss each step of the engineering design process in more detail:

A diagram shows the circular flow from brainstorm to design to review and back to brainstorm.
copyright
Copyright © Brett Ellison, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

  1. Understand the need: What is the problem? What do I want to do? What are the project requirements? What are the limitations? Who is the customer? What is the goal? Gather information and research.
  2. Brainstorm and design: Imagine and brainstorm ideas. Be creative. Investigate existing technologies and methods to use. Explore, compare and analyze many possible solutions. Select the most promising idea.
  3. Plan: Draw a diagram of your idea. How will it work? What materials and tools are needed? How will you test it to make sure it works?
  4. Create: Assign team tasks. Build a prototype. Does it work? Talk about what works, what doesn't and what could work better.
  5. Improve: Talk about how you could improve your end product. Make revisions. Draw new designs. Make your end product the best it can be.

What should we build? What are the requirements? Who will use it? What will it look like? What size will it be? What materials can we use? How do we build it? Those are the kinds of questions that engineers think about when designing something new. We are going to answer these same questions in our activity today. We are going to design a modern building and show how we would use the same simple machines that were used to build ancient the pyramids to make our structure easier to build. Are you ready? Start thinking about something big that you would like to build...

In case you do not remember just exactly what simple machines do, and what they are, we have a short review to help us all refresh our memories. (Show the Review of Simple Machines, a PowerPoint presentation, or print out the slides to use with an overhead projector. The presentation is animated to promote an inquiry-based style; each click reveals a new point about each machine; have students suggest characteristics and examples before you reveal them.)

Vocabulary/Definitions

Brainstorming: A method of shared problem solving in which all members of a group quickly and spontaneously contribute many ideas.

Compound machine: A combination of one or more simple machines used to cooperatively utilize their characteristic applications.

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.

Design problem: A challenge to solve by creative ideas, teamwork and critical thought.

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)

Force: A push or a pull on an object.

Mechanical advantage : An advantage gained by using simple machines to accomplish work with less effort. Making the task easier (which means it requires less force), but may require more time or room to work (more distance, rope, etc.). For example, applying a smaller force over a longer distance to achieve the same effect as applying a large force over a small distance. The ratio of the output force exerted by a machine to the input force applied to it.

Prototype: A first attempt or early model of a new product or creation. May be revised many times.

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.

Work: Force on an object multiplied by the distance it moves. W = F x d (force multiplied by distance).

Procedure

Activity Timetable

30 minutes for brainstorming, and creating a design using the worksheet

30 minutes for design revision, and implementation via butcher paper murals

25-30 minutes for mural presentations, and simple machines/design process discussion

Before the Activity

With the Students

  1. Divide the class into design teams of three students each. Each team works together to solve a design problem: To build a structure of their choice, and demonstrate how the simple machines, used alone and combined, will be used to build that structure.
  2. If necessary, use the Review of Simple Machines PowerPoint presentation to review the six simple machines and their mechanical advantages (optional).
  3. Review with the students the basics of the engineering design process — the steps all engineers go through in designing buildings and products, and solving problems. 1) Understand the need, 2) brainstorm and design, 3) plan, 4) create and 5) improve.) It may help to provide the Engineering Design Process Reference Sheet as a handout or overhead projector slide (optional). (The presentation is animated to promote an inquiry-based style; each click reveals a new point about each machine; have students suggest characteristics and examples before you reveal them.)
  4. Hand out the Design Your Own! Worksheet and allow 30 minutes for student teams to brainstorm ideas for their structure and simple machine uses.
  • Facilitate the team brainstorming session. Challenge each design team to decide the type of structure they want to build, and how they will use each of the six simple machines to facilitate its construction. Encourage wild ideas and creative types of buildings... maybe they want to create a space station or a floating island!
  • Explain that brainstorming is a creative step. Engineers use their science and math knowledge to explore all possible options and compare many design ideas. This approach is called open-ended design because when you start to solve a problem, you don't know what the best solution will be. The process is cyclical and may begin at, and return to, any step.
  • Make sure students are aware that they must finish within a deadline, just like a real-world engineering team, for each segment. Occasionally remind them of the time remaining. If teams are not done by 30 minutes, stop them and constructively criticize the fact that they were not able to meet their time limit, and reinforce the notion of prioritization of goals, and time budgeting — two concepts that engineers must always keep in mind for a project.
  • As needed, remind students of what they should be addressing in the first few steps of the design process:

Understand the need: What is the problem? What do we want to do? What are the project requirements? What are the limitations? Who is the customer? What is the goal? Gather information and research.

Brainstorm and design: Imagine and brainstorm ideas. Be creative. Investigate existing technologies and methods to use. Explore, compare and analyze many possible solutions. Select the most promising idea.

Plan: Draw a diagram of your idea. How will it work? What materials and tools are needed? What simple machines will you use for construction? How will you test it to make sure it works?

Photo of a white marble square building topped with a gently swelling dome in front of a long pool of water.
Taj Mahal, India.
copyright
Copyright © U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/archives/india/taj3.jpg

  • Monitor students' progress, making sure the teams move on from wild brainstorming to critiquing and evaluating the options (decision making) and planning, and they are making progress to complete the worksheet.
  1. After teams have finished their worksheets, have them present their completed design to the "Design Review Board" (the teacher and any other adults or parents) to have their design idea critiqued. The design review process is a great opportunity to gauge how well the group has worked together; it will be quite evident if they have had any struggles. (It is best to stagger these review boards or have other adults to help. Waiting students can use the time to refine their ideas. Students who have finished can move on to the next step.)
  • Provide constructive feedback on the design decisions. Engineers want to hear feedback on their designs; that is how they refine them and make them better. Make sure the student ideas make sense. Provide specific comments regarding the use of one or two machines to help them understand that sometimes ideas require improvement, that the engineering design process is cyclical, and requires multiple iterations on an idea. For instance, "That's a creative use for a lever, but do you think that you will be able to construct a lever strong enough to lift such a heavy block?" Or, "This space station has a neat idea for wheel and axle, but will a truck be able to drive through space with no gravity or roads?"
  • In the critiquing session explain to the students that early versions of a design help the design process by improving the understanding of the problem, identifying missing requirements, evaluating design objectives and product features, and getting feedback from others. In the end, engineers select the solution that best uses the available resources and best meets the project's requirements. They consider many factors: Cost to construct and use, quality, reliability, safety, functionality, ease of use, aesthetics, ethics, social impact, maintainability, testability, ease/cost to construct or manufacture.
  • As necessary, provide feedback on how successfully (or not) the team members worked together. Discuss the generation of ideas, listening skills, decision making and equitable participation.
  • Guide the students to self-evaluate their ideas and revise their own ideas for their final design. If they consider the feedback and revise their ideas or suggest alterations, praise them for their ability to take criticisms and turn them into positive improvements.
  1. Next is the implementation of our engineering designs, which may be manufacturing or construction, or, in this case, creating a large mural of the design project (since we do not have the resources to build it for real). Allow 25-30 minutes for the teams to draw their building and the depiction of the uses of each simple machine (require more advanced students to include a complex machine in their design as well).
  • Give each design team a large sheet butcher paper and coloring utensils for them to "implement" their design. Make sure that they have decided on final improvements to their design before beginning the actual "construction" of their structure on the butcher paper.
  • Remind them that the design process continues with a few more steps:

Create: Assign team tasks. Build a prototype. Does it work? Talk about what works, what doesn't and what could work better.

Improve: Talk about how you could improve your end product. Make revisions. Draw new designs. Make your product the best it can be.

Photo of red brick towers with colorful onion-shaped domes.
St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow.
copyright
Copyright © Sandia Labs, http://www.sandia.gov/ASCI/russia/Images/scanned_images/stbasils.jpg

  1. Post all the completed team murals around the classroom and lead a class discussion for 25-30 minutes. The most important themes to get across are teamwork, the design process, and the ability of simple machines to facilitate the solution of complex problems. Review each design mural and note the creative uses of each simple machine in single or complex applications.
  2. Ask questions about the uses of simple machines, and how engineers work to solve a complex problem. What are some kinds of simple machine uses that are common to all construction processes? Explain that engineers are always interested in discovering patterns or finding things common to many processes. If they can find a pattern in what they are designing, then they already have an idea for a solution to a new problem on future projects. What other sorts of patterns have they noticed in the buildings?
  3. Wrap up the discussion with a brief overview of the design process, reminding the students that good teamwork made their projects (murals) possible, and that even great ideas can always use a little improvement before implementation. Remind students that the steps of the engineering design process are helpful any time you build something or solve a problem because it helps you think through all aspects of a problem to find a good solution.

Attachments

Troubleshooting Tips

Make sure students feel that the activity is based on a schedule with deadlines. Occasionally remind them of the time remaining. This gives them an idea of how a real-world engineer works, as well as keeps them focused on the activity for its duration.

If time is limited, distill this activity to a simpler design problem in which only the worksheet is used, and assessment becomes the design review, followed by a short discussion about how engineers work together in the design process, and how time can be a factor in how engineers decide on appropriate solutions.

Make sure students are familiar with their task at hand. Reading the worksheet aloud, or having a student do the same is often an effective way of keeping them focused on the activity.

If the students have questions about the design process, answer them while keeping in mind that the process is simple — "Conceive, design, evaluate, repeat." The concept to really stress is teamwork. Ask the students how a team of engineers should work together; you should hear words like "brainstorming," and "respect," and "creative," and anything else that conveys a sense of cooperative thinking and acting. Emphasize the importance of respecting one another's ideas and suggestions, and coming to a collaborative consensus when choosing a solution to a problem.

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Review Questions: Use the following questions to activate prior knowledge. Integrate and summarize student responses.

  • What are the six simple machines? (Answer: Wedge, wheel and axle, lever, inclined plane, screw, and pulley.)
  • What is mechanical advantage? (Answer: Applying a smaller force over a longer distance to achieve the same effect as applying a large force over a small distance. How simple machines make something easier to do but with a trade-off like time or distance.)
  • Complex machines are two or more simple machines used together to make a job even easier. Give an example of a complex machine. (Possible answers include: Dump truck [wheel and axle and lever], crane [pulley and wheel and axle], axe [wedge and lever], knife [wedge and lever], can opener [wheel and axle and wedge]. More complex machines often have many of the six simple machines incorporated in their motors and functions, for example, combining small wheel and axles to turn things, screws hold the machine together, and wedges to punch through things, you build sewing machines and electric drills.)
  • How do engineers use simple machines? (Answer: Engineers use simple machines as tools to build all sorts of structures and objects. Simple machines help make an engineer's work easier and even possible.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Brainstorming: As a class, have students engage in open discussion to come up with unique ideas for the structure they will design. Remind students that engineers use brainstorming all the time to come up with great ideas. In brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Take an uncritical position, encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have students work through the engineering design process steps and the worksheet.

Worksheet: Have the student teams work through the activity worksheet; review their answers to gauge their progress on the design project and their mastery of the subject.

Design Review: When all the student teams have completed their designs, have them present to the design review board. Provide each team with constructive criticism about their design. Also use this as an opportunity to gauge how well the group has worked together. Have students explain the logic of their design decisions. Ask them to comment, explain and describe: Who is the end-user of their structure? How did they select the final idea? What materials will be used to construct it? What simple machines will be used for the construction process? What compound machines will be used? Do they have any ideas for improvement? How did using the steps of the engineering design process work for their team? Provide specific feedback and suggestions for improvement so they understand that this is the nature of the design process. Guide the students to self-evaluate their ideas and revise them for their final design.

Post-Activity Assessment

Closing Class Discussion: Post all the team murals around the classroom and conduct a class discussion. The important themes to explore are teamwork, the design process, and the ability of simple machines to facilitate the solution of complex project. Review each design mural and note the creative uses of each simple machine in single or complex applications. Ask the students:

  • What are some types of simple machine uses that are common to all construction processes? (Answer: Any of them can be common, including screws, wheel and axle, and pulleys.)
  • What complex/compound uses of simple machines were used? (Answer: Depends on what students developed in their designs.)
  • What other sorts of patterns do you notice, after looking at everyone's buildings? (Answer: Have students look for patterns in the various designs in the class, such as using wheels to move items over rough ground, using inclined planes/ramps to get to another level, using wedges to move things around, using pulleys to lift heavy things.)
  • What similar technologies were used in both the modern and historical structures? (Answer: Any of the six simple machines. Some complex machines may not have been invented until more recent history.)
  • How did your teamwork efforts contribute to your final design? (Possible answers: Many ideas, different points of view, voting to make decisions, and sharing tasks.)
  • What are the steps in the engineering design process? (Answers: Understand the need, brainstorm and design, plan, create and improve. See details in the Introduction/Motivation section.)
  • What steps did your team go through in this design process? (Possible answers: Brainstorming, decision making and design review phases.)
  • Did you make any improvements to your design after the design review board comments? (Answer: Depends on the team. Point to make: Even great ideas can always use a little improvement before implementation.)

Homework: Overnight, assign each student to think of three large, modern engineering construction projects that are important in their family's life and/or have played an important role in advancing our society. This might include buildings, structures, highways, bridges, tunnels, dams, waterways, commercial centers, recreation centers or transportation facilities. In class the next day, have each student explain one of their ideas (not already mentioned) to the rest of the class. How have these projects influenced the quality of life we enjoy today?

Activity Extensions

Invite an engineer from a small engineering firm to speak to the class about their work, the creative design methods they use, their clients, the engineering design process and their completed projects in the local community.

Rube Goldberg compound machines are also a resource for simple machines knowledge, involving a complex machine that performs a task that is typically very mundane, such as starting a fan or feeding a dog. The Internet is a resource for Rube Goldberg information, and can provide links to local activities involving these machines.

Activity Scaling

  • For upper grades, require at least one use of a complex machine in the design process.

References

Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. www.dictionary.com. Accessed February 8, 2006. (Source of vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation)

Contributors

Brett S. Ellison; 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.

Copyright

© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

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

Acknowledgements

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.

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