Lesson: Olympic Engineering

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

The Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.
The Olympic stadium built for the Beijing Olympics illustrates great engineering
copyright
Copyright © https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Summer_Olympics#/media/File:Beijing_Olympics_2008.jpg

Summary

The Olympics are introduced as the unit theme by describing the engineering required to build grand and complex event centers. Then students are introduced to the techniques of engineering problem solving, specifically brainstorming and the steps of the engineering design process. The importance of thinking "outside of the box" is also emphasized to show that while some challenges seem impossible at first, solutions can be found when they are approached with creativity.

Engineering Connection

Engineers use the design process daily to come up with new design ideas for buildings, computers, software, water purification systems, airplanes, vehicles, toys, products, etc. The approach includes brainstorming and keeping an open mind when thinking of ways to solve problems. Teamwork is also an important skill to practice, as engineers typically work in teams to accomplish tasks. Completing a project usually requires the contributions and work of many people with different areas of expertise.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Describe the steps of the engineering design process.
  • Explain the importance of thinking "outside the box" when brainstorming ideas.
  • Describe the significance of engineers looking to the past to learn from both successes and mistakes.
  • List three different types of engineers and give examples of their responsibilities.

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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.

  • 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?
  • Various relationships exist between technology and other fields of study. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Introduction/Motivation

Think of the summer of 2008 (or the date of the next summer Olympics)... Your entire class has just won tickets and transportation to the Championship Soccer Game for the Olympic gold medal in Beijing (or the location of the next summer Olympics)! You will be heading to China in a few weeks to watch the game, but first you decide to do a bit of research about the Olympics. Does anyone know any history about the Olympics? By searching on the web, you would learn that the modern Olympic Games began in 1896 and are based on the Olympic Games of the Ancient Greeks. In the Ancient Olympics, athletes from different cities in Greece competed against one another in honor of the gods whom they believed to reside on Mt. Olympia.

The Beijing National Stadium (Bird's Nest) at night where the 2008 Olympics were held.
Beijing National Stadium
copyright
Copyright © https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beijing_National_Stadium

In modern times, the Olympic Games are worldwide competitions that have been divided into the summer and winter games and hosted by cities all over the world. Each host city does a lot of planning and building to prepare for all of the athletes and spectators. Often, many new buildings are built to accommodate the different events. In your search on the Internet, you would find websites that show different Olympic venues all around the world. Can anyone name some types of structures that are necessary to host the Olympics? (Answer: Arenas, stadiums, housing for athletes and coaches [Olympic villages], transportation, etc.) How about anything specifically for the summer games? (Answer: Swimming pools, tracks, soccer fields, softball diamonds, etc.) What about the winter games? (Answer: Bobsled track, ice rinks, ski slopes, luge run, etc.) Many of the buildings and structures are technically advanced and have very cool features, allowing the host country to showcase their engineering and architectural abilities.

Does anyone know what engineering is? Let's come up with a class definition of what engineering is and what engineers do. Engineering is defined as inventing and building things for the benefit of society. So, engineers work in many different fields to create new products and improve existing products to make better the lives of people. As they are creating such products, engineers use the engineering design process to develop their ideas and inventions.

The engineering design process involves six basic steps. The idea behind the process is such that once the first design is built, the product can be further improved by restarting the process. The steps in the design process are listed below. (Write steps on the board or use the Design Process Overhead.)

Design Process Steps

  1. Find the need.
  2. Define the problem.
  3. Brainstorm to come up with ideas.
  4. Select the most promising design.
  5. Plan and manage the project.
  6. Build-test-refine the design.

Brainstorming is a very important part of the design process. Teams of engineers work cooperatively and come up with many ideas to find the best solution to the challenge at hand. Some guidelines for brainstorming are: (Write guidelines on the board, or use the Brainstorming Guidelines as a handout or overhead.)

  • Provide only positive comments (no negative comments are allowed at this stage of the design process).
  • Encourage wild ideas.
  • Write all ideas on the board.
  • Stay focused on topic.
  • Hold only one conversation at a time.
  • Build on the ideas of others.

Commonly in engineering, the best solution is not the most obvious, so engineers must think "outside the box." Can someone explain to the class what "thinking outside the box" means? That's right! It means thinking of a creative and perhaps unusual approach to the problem, by looking at the problem from a new angle — or tackling the problem in a new way. Engineers spend a lot of time refining and improving already existing products, so they must be open to new ideas.

In addition to learning HOW to solve problems, engineers need to learn WHERE to search for answers. One way is to examine products and projects from the past, so as to learn from failures and build on successes.

Let's take some time to think about all the things in your daily life that must have been designed by engineers. Buildings are designed by civil or architectural engineers, along with mechanical, construction management and electrical engineers (at a minimum). What other kinds of engineers do you know about? Grab a partner and make a list of 10 things that you come across every day that were designed by engineers. Now that you have your list...what types of engineers would be involved in designing each one? Or, what would a person have to know a lot about to design each item on your list?

Along those lines, what kind of engineers would be involved in designing and building an Olympic stadium? Here are a few pictures of stadiums. [Show the Stadiums Visual Aid or other photos of stadiums or event centers.] Just by looking at the pictures, we can see all the different aspects of stadiums that require the expertise of different types of engineers. Structural engineers make sure the overall framework is strong and meets the needs of athletes and fans. Electrical and computer engineers design the lighting and scoreboard, while civil engineers design the road systems and parking lots. Acoustical engineers are in charge of the enormous sound system. Mechanical engineers ensure the stadium has running water and air conditioning or heating, while sanitary engineers design to meet plumbing needs.

Look back over your list of items and see if you can add more about what types of engineers designed them. Many different types of engineers contribute to a wide range of products and projects. Chemical engineers for example, work closely with the medical industry to create new medicines to treat diseases, such as cancer. An environmental engineer might analyze how birds are impacted by pollution or how to clean a community's water source.

The many different types of engineers all vary in their specialties. Some examples: mechanical, electrical, civil, environmental, biomedical, aerospace, computer science, agricultural, transportation and chemical engineers. Here are some pictures and photographs of products that were designed and built by engineers. (Show pictures/photographs of engineered products that might interest students. Provide a creative range of products, for example, water systems, aspirin, roller coasters, stereos, shampoo, appliances, etc. Even cell phones and iPods may surprise students.) You may be amazed to learn that just about everything had an engineer involved at some point. How do you think these things were created? Do you think one person designed each one? Most likely these items were not created by just one person. It takes several different engineers working together to create a final product.

Just as building an Olympic stadium requires several types of engineers, it takes many different kinds of engineers to design and build things — a car, for example. Mechanical engineers design the parts, electrical engineers design the electrical system, and chemical engineers create the fuel. It takes all of these people to design vehicles—an example that shows us how teamwork is a big part of engineering.

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

While some failed engineering attempts have happened over the years, hundreds of thousands of very successful feats have been accomplished by engineers. Engineers design almost everything that you see, feel, use, even eat! The following list of engineering achievements shows how many things engineers have done that humans depend on (source: National Academy of Engineering, 2006, http://www.greatachievements.org/). Share a few of the most interesting with your students.)

Top 20 Engineering Achievements

20. High Performance Materials • Tailored and enhanced material properties

19. Nuclear Technologies • New source of electrical power and new capabilities in medical research and imaging

18. Laser and Fiber Optics • Industrial tools, surgical devices, satellites, communication, etc.

17. Petroleum and Gas Technologies • Fuel for cars, homes and industries

16. Health Technologies • Medical advances in diagnosis, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and other forms of treatment

15. Household Appliances • Labor-saving household devices brought about by electrification: vacuums, irons, toaster, dishwasher, refrigerator, etc.

14. Imaging • Advanced technology that allows for advanced imagery for use in medicine, space exploration and the movies

13. Internet • Allows users to research, communicate and make purchases via a computer and high-speed telecommunications cable (or even, simply, a telephone line)

12. Space Exploration • Rockets, satellites, shuttle, ISS (International Space Station)

11. Interstate Highways • Freedom of personal mobility/connecting communities

10. Air Conditioning and Refrigeration • Allows the transport and storage of fresh foods and creates stable environments

9. Telephone • Instant connections between friends, families, businesses and nations

8. Computers • Word processing and storage, delivery of documents and images, inventory management and remote access by workers to central offices

7. Agricultural Mechanization • Improved the farm implements designed for planting, harvesting and reaping

6. Radio and television • Opening windows to other peoples and places and bringing distant events directly into millions of homes

5. Electronics • Devices that have altered every aspect of daily life: transistors, integrated circuits, calculators, copper-based chips

4. Safe and Abundant Water • Eliminated waterborne diseases

3. Airplane • Transports goods and people quickly around the world

2. Automobile • World's major transporter of people and goods

1. Electrification • Powers almost every pursuit and enterprise in modern society

Strength of Shapes

A black and white photo of a crumbling building with columns on all sides.
Figure 1. The Greek Parthenon, circa 454-435 BC.
copyright
Copyright © New York State Archives, New York State Education Department http://iarchives.nysed.gov/Gallery/gallery.jsp?id=93

Engineers use a variety of geometrical shapes in their designs because each shape has different useful properties. Some shapes are stronger than others and are used more often in building structures. Though rectangles are very common in many buildings, they are not the strongest. Rectangles are used more for how they look and fit rather than their strength. Two of the strongest shapes are triangles and columns. Triangles are rigid structures that are often used in bridges and buildings. Columns are often found in all types of buildings, notably in some of the ancient buildings, which are still standing! The use of these shapes is not always visible, as the internal and external finish materials often cover up the structure.

An example of a building using both triangles and columns is the ancient Parthenon in Greece, a very successful engineering feat. Construction of the Parthenon began more than 2000 years ago in 447 BC — at the height of the Athenian empire — and the building is still standing today. The Parthenon was a temple built to represent the power and strength of the residents of Athens, Greece (see Figure 1). This is an excellent example of a well-built structure that engineers can study, enabling then to learn better designs from the past for the future.

Vocabulary/Definitions

force: The reaction created by mass and gravity.

Olympic Games: International competition held every two years in a different location around the world.

Parthenon: A Greek temple built in 447 BC.

pillar: A strong vertical support column, seen often in modern and ancient buildings.

rectangle: A geometric shape common in everyday life; rectangles easily deform when weighted.

triangle: A useful geometric shape that is naturally rigid and very useful in construction.

Associated Activities

Lesson Closure

Let's think about what we have learned in this lesson. Remember, engineering is about inventing and building things for the benefit of society.

What do you think engineers do? Do they only build buildings? As we learned when discussing the Olympic stadium, engineers do a lot of things other than design buildings and bridges. Engineers work in many different fields to develop and change products to improve peoples' lives.

Do you think engineers have to be creative? Yes, engineers must be creative in problem solving and think beyond obvious solutions – they have to "think outside the box." Being creative is especially important for brainstorming, the third step of the engineering design process. While brainstorming new ideas, is it important for engineers to study history? It is necessary for engineers to understand what has been done in the past to come up with the best solution for the future. Engineers also must understand the mistakes of the past to ensure that we do not repeat them in the future.

In this lesson, we learned about engineering problem-solving techniques such as the engineering design process and brainstorming. We also learned that it can be helpful to look at past examples, such as the columns of the Greek Parthenon, to help guide our designs of today. We know that some shapes are stronger than others, making them more useful in designing buildings and other structures.

While thinking about the stadium and reviewing the lists of everyday engineered items, we came to understand that engineers do much more than design buildings and bridges. What are some examples? (Listen to student suggestions.) Our world includes many different kinds of engineering, and each engineer plays a different role in the creation of products. We discovered that teamwork is important, and it is rare for an engineer to build something all on her or his own.

In the next lesson, as we head to China for the gold medal championship soccer game, we will learn about different modes of transport – over land and sea!

Attachments

Assessment

Pre-Lesson Assessment

Discussion Question: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses.

  • Who can tell me what engineering is? (Answer: Engineering is inventing and designing things for the benefit of society.)
  • Can anyone give an example of something that an engineer does? (Answer: Create a design for a bridge, design a circuit for a computer, design a new appliance, create a new chemical, etc.)

Post-Introduction Assessment

Engineering Discussion: As a class, have students engage in open discussion. Ask the students:

  • What are some things that engineers create? (Answer: Engineers create buildings, structures, computers, food, water systems, bubble gum, all sorts of products, etc.)
  • What are some types of engineers? (Answer: Chemical, civil, mechanical, electrical, biomedical, aerospace, and environmental engineers are some types of engineers.)
  • What do engineers do every day? (Answer: They design and create things to improve people's lives.)
  • Do engineers just build buildings? If not, what else do they do? (Answer: Engineering do a lot! See answers above).
  • Are engineers creative, like artists? (Answer: While there is no correct answer to this question, steer students toward discussing the need for engineers to be creative in problem solving.)
  • What does it mean to "think outside the box"? (Answer: To come up with a creative approach to solving a problem.)
  • Why is it good for engineers to learn from the past? (Answer: Because engineers can learn from past engineering successes and failures; learning from the past helps engineers know what will and will not work in the future.)
  • Who can remember the steps in the engineering design process? (Answer: This question can be challenging for younger students, but can be reviewed frequently during this unit. The steps are: find the need, define the problem, come up with ideas, select the most promising design, plan and manage the project, and build-test-refine the design.)

Lesson Summary Assessment

Drawing: Have students draw pictures of Olympic events. Ask them to draw as many details as they can (such as bleachers, lights, buildings, sound systems, timers, water fountains, etc.). Ask them to name as many of the things created by engineers as they can. Finally, if time allows, have them identify what kinds of engineer create each item. (The other lessons in this unit may touch on some of the ideas suggested by the students, so it may be a good idea to keep a list of needs for the Olympics in which engineers are involved). Students should be able to identify at least three different kinds of engineers, and give examples of their different responsibilities or areas of expertise.

Brainstorming: Have students brainstorm with the person sitting next to them answers to the following question. Remind students that 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 raise their hands to respond, and write their ideas on the board.

  • Where might engineers look to find ideas for solutions to challenges?

Have each pair of students write down two or three ideas and then share them with the class. Possible ideas: Nature, the library, past projects, or any other creative ideas. Emphasize the point that many sources exist.

Lesson Extension Activities

Have a student pick an engineer type and write a list of five things s/he might design or create.

Have students draw pictures that are representative of their favorite types of engineering.

Have each student pick a favorite Olympic event and list the types of engineers that may be involved (for example, in building the stadium, designing the athletic gear, timing equipment, etc.).

Have students find one or more items in their houses that were not discussed in class that they think are engineered. See how many different objects and products the class can come up with collectively.

References

National Academy of Engineering, Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century, 2006, http://www.greatachievements.org/

New York State Archives, New York State Education Department, Cultural Education Center, Photo Gallery, "Greece," http://iarchives.nysed.gov/Gallery/gallery.jsp?id=93

Silverman, David. Reed College, Humanities 110, "The Parthenon," http://academic.reed.edu/humanities/110Tech/Parthenon.html

Contributors

Tod Sullivan; Melissa Straten; Katherine Beggs; Denali Lander; Abigail Watrous; Janet Yowell

Copyright

© 2006 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.

Last modified: July 31, 2017

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