Hands-on Activity: Make an Alarm!

Contributed by: Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University

Photograph shows a woman waking up and reaching for an alarm clock near her bed.
Students make alarm systems
Copyright © Microsoft Corporation, 1983-2001. http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/results.aspx?qu=alarm&ex=1#ai:MP900422198|mt:2|


After reading the story "Dear Mr. Henshaw" by Beverly Cleary, student groups create alarm systems to protect something in the classroom, just as the main character Leigh does to protect his lunchbox from thieves. Students learn about alarms and use their creativity to devise multi-step alarm systems to protect their lockers, desk, pets or classroom door. Note: This activity can also be done without reading the Cleary book.

Engineering Connection

Engineering teams are continually confronted with challenges to solve as thoroughly and creatively as possible. Sometimes they start with a simple solution and then redesign it in order to make the design more reliable and efficient. It is rare that a first design meets all the requirements and constraints of a design challenge; more typically, a product goes through several redesign iterations to improve the product.

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

Learning Objectives

  • The importance of alarm systems and where they are found.
  • How to work in teams, with members having different roles.
  • Design techniques and construction methods.
  • Understanding the importance of cause and effect when designing an alarm.

Materials List

  • small bells (inexpensive)
  • string
  • elastics
  • balloons
  • wires
  • marbles
  • paper towel tubes
  • pipe cleaners
  • Popsicle sticks
  • paper cups
  • duct tape
  • classroom supplies such as paper clips, paper, tape, glue, erasers, scissors, etc.
  • Group Worksheet, one per group
  • Rubric for Performance Assessment, one per group


What is the purpose of a car alarm? (Listen to student ideas.) It helps prevent thieves from stealing your car by triggering a loud alarm and drawing attention to the scene.

How would you protect something that is valuable to you from being stolen if you were unable to watch it at all times? Today, you will act as if you are engineers. Your design challenge is to think of creative ways to protect your locker, desk or classroom door. Can you create a set of booby traps that will alert you if someone is trying to break in?

Engineers usually work in teams. The advantage of working in a team is that everyone's ideas can be combined to come up with a great idea. We call this concept of sharing ideas brainstorming.


design: To plan and make something in a skillful way.



An alarm is a device that warns or signals, as by a bell, buzzer or whistle. Alarms work by having some type of (often unwanted) action set them off. Alarms take many forms. Some examples include: fire alarms, car alarms, alarm clocks, and security alarms.

Recommended Resources:

Inside a wind-up alarm clock. Good step-by-step pictures of a wind-up alarm clock. Shows inner workings of clock, including gears. http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/gadgets/clocks-watches/inside-clock.htm

History of time-keeping devices. Ancient Greeks introduced alarm clocks using water. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_timekeeping_devices

How digital clocks work. http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/gadgets/clocks-watches/digital-clock.htm

Before the Activity

With the Students

  1. Introduce the topic of alarms to students. Discuss the use of alarms in our daily lives and where they are found. If using the book, "Dear Mr. Henshaw," discuss why Leigh built an alarm.
  2. Explain to students the engineering design challenge (the goal): To build an alarm system to protect something in the classroom using only the materials provided. For example, build alarms to protect the students' lockers, desks, backpacks, the turtle aquarium, the classroom door, or a window.
  3. Identify the materials available to the students. Discuss any safety concerns related to the materials being used. Explain that the alarm system must consist of at least three steps, and should use the least amount of materials as possible. Talk about and explain what a design is and why it is important. Explain your criteria for the grading of their designs. NOTE: you may want to begin with a one-step alarm, and make it more challenging by adding steps.
  4. Divide the class into groups of three or four students each. Direct them to work collaboratively to accomplish the task of building an alarm.
  5. Ask students to draw on paper the design of their alarm system, including an explanation describing what their alarm does, how it works and materials used.
  6. Have groups present their final products to the class and explain how they work. Give students time for feedback and suggestions for improvement.


Investigating Questions

  • For what are alarms used?
  • Why do we need alarms?
  • Where do we find alarms?
  • Why did Leigh in "Dear Mr. Henshaw" need an alarm?
  • What do most alarms have in common?
  • For what reasons might we need an alarm in our classroom?



Cleary, Beverly. Dear Mr. Henshaw. New York, NY: Camelot, 2000.


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2004 Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Supporting Program

Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University