Hands-on Activity Paper Towers and Pool Balls Design Challenge

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Quick Look

Grade Level: 10 (9-11)

Time Required: 3 hours

(Note: time split into two 90-minute class periods)

Expendable Cost/Group: US $3.00

The only cost for the activity is for a set of pool balls which runs about $50. However, these can be used indefinitely.

Group Size: 3

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Measurement, Physics, Problem Solving, Reasoning and Proof

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle
HS-ETS1-3

Four students are constructing a paper tower that is narrow, round, and about two feet tall.
Students employ project-based learning strategies to build paper towers in a classroom.
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Copyright © 2021 mrpetersononline CC BY 2.0, Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrpetersononline/7831907426

Summary

How can teamwork and project-based learning help us understand engineering practices? In this activity, students are presented with two problems that must be solved physically. In the first problem, they must construct the tallest tower possible out of limited materials. In the second problem, they must find a way for a rolling pool ball to take a set maximum time to cover a specified distance. Students create and follow a design and are assessed by the performance of their creations. The students use the Engineering Design Process (EDP) to complete the two hands-on activities. This is an experiential learning experience for the student where they learn to collaborate ideas between teams, while also competing against each other. The sharing of knowledge is the path.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

By using the engineering design process, students explore how to create potential solutions for two problems.  As they progress through the EDP, they learn the importance of collaboration in engineering between team members and other teams. The goal is to create a culture where the goal is for everyone to learn and “win” and where the differences in engineering solutions are celebrated.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Approach a project as a group.
  • Seek information and sources to help solve a problem in the most effective way.
  • Hear other’s ideas in a constructive and effective manner.

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

HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts. (Grades 9 - 12)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.

Alignment agreement:

Analyze complex real-world problems by specifying criteria and constraints for successful solutions.

Alignment agreement:

When evaluating solutions it is important to take into account a range of constraints including cost, safety, reliability and aesthetics and to consider social, cultural and environmental impacts.

Alignment agreement:

Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and interactions—including energy, matter, and information flows—within and between systems at different scales.

Alignment agreement:

  • Students will develop an understanding of the attributes of design. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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  • Students will develop an understanding of engineering design. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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Materials List

For the Paper Tower Challenge

Each group needs:

  • 5 sheets of paper
  • scissors
  • masking tape, 1 m (3 ft)

For the Pool Ball Challenge 

Each group needs:

  • pool ball
  • 5 sheets of paper
  • scissors
  • masking tape, 1 m (3 ft)

To share with the entire class:

  • meter stick
  • stopwatch

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/vpi-2595-paper-towers-pool-balls-challenge-pbl] to print or download.

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Pre-Req Knowledge

None, but student familiarity with the Engineering Design Process can help facilitate the activity.

Introduction/Motivation

What are some real-world problems we are facing today? (Let students offer answers, which could include: pollution, deforestation, climate change, illnesses/pandemics, sanitation, poverty, access to water, human rights, discrimination, etc.)
 
These are some big problems! How do you think we can solve these real-world problems? (Potential answers: lots of ideas/brainstorming, thinking-outside of the box solutions, collaboration with others and other countries, testing, redesigning, improving, etc.)
 
Why do you think it is important to work together/in collaboration with others? How does project-based learning help us? (Potential answers: different ideas, different perspectives, different life experiences, different skills, provides accountability, etc.)
 
(Lead a discussion on what it takes to solve real-world problems and then introduce the following challenges to the class)
 
Paper Tower Challenge 
 
Today you will work in teams to design and build a paper tower as tall as possible using the engineering design process. Your team only has the following materials: five sheets of paper, a pair of scissors, and 1 meter (3 feet) of masking tape. That’s it! The other constraint for your build is that your tower cannot be anchored to anything or be touching anything but the surface it sits on. You have seven minutes to brainstorm and discuss plans for your tower with your group. At that time, you will choose one person to stay at your table to discuss your design with other groups while the other members of your group rotate to other groups to hear about their designs. You will then return to your groups, discuss the plans you have seen and come to a decision on your final plan. As you build, call the teacher over to you to measure your tower often. There will be a running scoreboard that will be updated as you build. Also, at any time, you can turn in your paper and tape and get new supplies. These are the rules, if you are not breaking them, then it is permitted.
 

Pool Ball Challenge

Now that you have practiced the group design process, you have another challenge! You will be given five sheets of paper, 1 meter (3 feet) of tape, a pair of scissors, and a pool ball. Your task is to release your pool ball from one side of a tilted table (or wall) and have it roll to the other side of the table/wall. The goal is for this process to take a minute or longer for the ball to roll from one side to the other. You cannot interfere with the rolling of the ball at all (for instance, you cannot lift the table as the ball is rolling or nudge it along). You will practice for 20 minutes, then again share your designs with other groups like we did yesterday. You will be able to renew your materials like yesterday as well. 

Procedure

Background

This activity is designed to begin to change students’ (and teachers’) thoughts on what success means when it comes to solving a problem. This activity helps students see that sharing of information and collaborating with others are both important to the design process.    

Student groups construct two different design challenges with limited resources. After brainstorming and researching in their groups, they will need to creatively problem-solve. In the first activity, students will construct the tallest paper tower they can and in the second, the students will try to get a pool ball to roll across a titled table or wall during a set duration. The real purpose of these activities lies in the teaching elements—first, to teach that research and sharing of information is important to the design process. The second is, it can take some structure to facilitate effective group communication. Finally, to have students realize there is no penalty for practice—groups can execute a plan, get credit for it, then execute another plan and if it’s better, then they will get more credit for it).

Before the Activity

  • Gather the materials for each activity.
  • Make copies of the Paper Towels, Pool Balls Challenge Engineering Design Process Notebook, one per students
  • Decide on the student groups (for example, size and composition—consider 3-5 students for the Paper Tower activity and 2-3 students for the Pool Ball Challenge. Mix up the groups for each challenge.)
    • For the Pool Ball Challenge, decide what surface the students will test their designs on: tilted table/table on its side, classroom wall or door, hallway wall or door, etc.

With the Students

Day 1: Paper Tower Activity

  1. Assign and place students in groups at separate tables/areas.
  2. Read the Paper Tower Challenge Introduction carefully aloud to the class. Remember that this is a culture building activity, so the procedure matters. What you tell them and give them will be important. The goal is for the students to solve the problem and failure is going to be part of the process. Failure will not affect a student’s grade; it will be a part of the learning process.
  3. After reading the motivation, ask the students if there are any clarifying questions. (DO NOT give students information they do not ask for.)
  4. Tell the students that they will have 7 minutes to brainstorm ideas for their creation AND pick their best idea.
  5. Start the stopwatch and let the groups brainstorm for 7 minutes. The teacher should answer questions as needed, reinforcing the constraints of the problem.
  6. After 7 minutes, have the students pick one person from their group who will stay at the table. This will be the “table person.” The other members will cycle through the other groups’ tables. Send the other members to the next table.
  7. Once the student groups have shifted one table over, give the table person 1 minute to describe the plans that their group came up with. Note: While the table person talks, there will be no questions or talking from the visiting group team members. Let visiting group members take notes and write down questions.
  8. Next, give the visiting group 1 minute to talk about the pros and cons of the project plan with each other and the table person will not talk. Let the table person take notes and write down questions.
  9. Finally, give each table 1 minute to have a back-and-forth discussion to address the comments. This whole process should take 3 minutes per session. At the end of the 3 minutes, have the visiting group members cycle to the next table and repeat again until the group cycles back to their own table.
  10. Once the groups are back at their original tables, discuss as a class why they engaged in this process. Let students offer their ideas and answers. The goal is to solve the problem – so good ideas are meant to be spread. An example that can be used is mobile phone design. When the first smartphone came out, everyone mimicked the design and made their own improvements.
  11. Hand out materials to each group. Give the groups 30 minutes to design and build their towers.
  12. As groups build their towers, the teacher should rotate through the room and measure the height of each tower. Keep a running leaderboard. Once a group builds a tower and measures it, they can take it down, get new materials and rebuild. This is a deliberate part of the process – the iteration of a design.
  13. After 30 minutes, determine the tallest tower.
  14. As a class, go through each group’s tower design and conduct an “after action review.” This is a deliberate critique that starts with something positive, then provides a critique (critiques address the process, not the person), and finally ends with something positive.
  15. If time allows, do a review of the activity as a whole. Let students start with something positive about the activity, then offer a critique of the activity, and end on a positive note. This section empowers students to be able to critique an activity.

Day 2: Pool Ball Activity

  1. Assign and place students in groups at separate tables/areas. (Groups should be different than the groups from the previous activity.)
  2. Read the Pool Ball Challenge Introduction carefully aloud to the class. Remember that this is a culture building activity, so the procedure matters. What you tell them and give them will be important. The goal is for the students to solve the problem and failure is going to be part of the process. Failure will not affect a student’s grade; it will be a part of the learning process.
  3. After reading the motivation, ask the students if there are any clarifying questions. (DO NOT give students information they do not ask for.)
  4. Hand out materials to the students and the Paper Towels, Pool Balls Challenge Engineering Design Process Notebook, and tell them that this time they will have 20 minutes to brainstorm ideas for their creation AND pick their best idea.
  5. After 20 minutes, have each group choose one member to be the “table person” who will stay at the table. (This should be someone who did not do it in the first activity.) Then rotate the rest of the group members through to the next group’s area and conduct the 3-minute group-sharing procedure.
    1. Give the table person 1 minute to describe the plans that their group came up with. Note: While the table person talks, there will be no questions or talking from the visiting group team members. Let visiting group members take notes and write down questions.
    2. Give the visiting group 1 min to talk about the pros and cons of the project plan with each other and the table person will not talk. Let the table person take notes and write down questions.
    3. Give each table 1 minute to have a back-and-forth discussion to address the comments.
    4. At the end of the three minutes, have the visiting group members cycle to the next table.
    5. Repeat until the group cycles back to their original table.
  6. Once the groups are back at their original tables, discuss as a class why they engaged in this process. Focus on why it's helpful to engage in this sharing and collaboration process.
  7. Give as much time as possible for the students to execute their designs. Note: It is not uncommon for students to want to take another full day to continue this activity.
  8. As groups build their Pool Ball systems, the teacher should rotate through the room and time how long each group’s system keeps the pool ball going. Keep a running leaderboard. Once a group builds a Pool Ball run and times it, they can take it down, get new materials and rebuild. This is a deliberate part of the process – the iteration of a design.
  9.  As a class, go through each group’s Pool Ball design and conduct an “after action review.” This is a deliberate critique that starts with something positive, then the critique (critiques addresses the process not the person), and end with something positive.
  10. If time allows, do an “after action review” of the activity, as a whole. Let student starts with something positive about the activity, then offer a critique of the activity (critiques addresses the activity not the teacher), and end with something positive. It is often empowering for students to be able to critique an activity.

Vocabulary/Definitions

project-based Learning: Teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Solving Real-World Problems: Whole group discussion of what it takes to solve real world problems. (Potential answers: real world solutions take collaboration, they are redesigned and made better, etc.)

Discuss how that is similar or different from how school operates.

Activity Embedded (Formative) Assessment

Groupwork & Communication: Each group’s final design is its own self-assessment (e.g., students are communicating ideas, discussing solutions, rebuilding/refining their designs based on these discussions, etc.)

Design Process Notebook: Have students work through and complete the Paper Towels, Pool Balls Challenge Engineering Design Process Notebook.

Post-Activity (Summative) Assessment

After Action Review: The “after action review” in the procedure is the post assessment.  

Investigating Questions

  1. What worked well about your design? Why?
  2. What did not work well? Why not?
  3. What design elements did you learn/gain from other teams?
  4. If you had more time, what would you do differently?
  5. If you could have more of one of the materials, which one (tape or paper) would you choose and why?

Safety Issues

Students should be careful with scissors.

The pool ball is heavy and needs to be utilized with care.

Activity Scaling

For younger students, only do the Paper Tower activity, focusing on how teamwork is necessary to make a good tower.

For higher grades, incorporate explanations of the center of mass and how the center of mass shifts with height so taller towers topple over more easily. As a tower gets taller, its center of mass moves farther from the base, so it has less support and topples over more easily.

Copyright

© 2021 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2019 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Contributors

Aaron Napier; Steve Ahn

Supporting Program

Virginia Tech NSF RET Water EcubeG Program, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Acknowledgements

This activity was developed under National Science Foundation grant no. 1609089—Research Experiences for Teachers Site: Water ECubeG (Engineering, Ecology, Environment, Geosciences) at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: December 3, 2021

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