Curricular Unit: Building towards the Future

Contributed by: Techtronics Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University

A black and white photo shows a tall I-beam structure with two men up high, working on the beams.
Ironworkers building a tower.
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Students are introduced to some basic civil engineering concepts in an exciting and interactive manner via two lessons and three activities. Bridges and skyscrapers—the two most visible structures designed by civil engineers—are discussed in depth, including the design principles behind them. To help students visualize in three dimensions, one hands-on activity presents three-dimensional coordinate systems and gives students practice finding and describing points in space. After learning about skyscrapers, tower design principles and how materials absorb different types of forces, students compete to build their own newspaper towers to meet specific design criteria.The unit concludes with student groups using balsa wood and glue to design and build tower structures to withstand vertical and lateral forces.

Engineering Connection

The ability to visualize in three dimensions is imperative to civil engineers. Engineers use a coordinate system whenever they create engineering drawings of structures, usually the Cartesian coordinate system. To build the tallest structures in the world, engineers must understand the importance of adequate foundations and redundancy in design to ensure safety and stability. To meet the challenge, engineers have devised and implemented many other creative designs and material uses so that their structures are able to withstand great forces. Students get a taste of these concepts and then apply what they have learned to create towers to meet specific objectives, as if they were civil engineers.

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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 (

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 the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Find and position integers and other rational numbers on a horizontal or vertical number line diagram; find and position pairs of integers and other rational numbers on a coordinate plane. (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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Unit Overview

Lesson 1, The Next Dimension: Students are introduced to the concept of 3-D coordinate systems and graphing, which are essential to civil engineering work. In an associated activity, A Place in Space, students practice finding points in space and describing the location of given points in space.

Lesson 2, Skyscrapers: Engineering Up!: Students are presented with a history of skyscrapers and their unnique structural engineering design principles. In an associated activity, Newspaper Towers, students compete to build newspaper towers of maximum height and ability to withstand wind forces. In a second associated activity, Balsa Towers, student groups use balsa wood and epoxy glue to build structurally sound towers with favorable strength-to-weight ratios.

Unit Schedule


After this unit, students should be able to:

  • Locate a point in space, given its coordinates and an origin.
  • Use coordinates to describe the location of a given point in space relative to some origin.
  • Explain why they built their towers the way they did, using the concepts and terms they learned in the history of skyscraper presentation.
  • Explain how their towers resisted the wind load (for example, which tower parts supported the bulk of the load, or making the tower really slender so the wind has less area to act on, etc.).


Kelly Devereaux; Ben Burnham


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2004 Duke University

Supporting Program

Techtronics Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University


This content was developed by the MUSIC (Math Understanding through Science Integrated with Curriculum) Program in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. DGE 0338262. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: November 29, 2016