Students are introduced to brainstorming and the design process in problem solving as it relates to engineering. They perform an activity to develop and understand problem solving with an emphasis on learning from history. Using only paper, straws, tape and paper clips, they create structures that can support the weight of at least one textbook. In their first attempts to build the structures, they build whatever comes to mind. For the second trial, they examine examples of successful buildings from history and try again.
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- Colorado: Math
- f. Select an appropriate tool and unit for measuring length, weight, and capacity (Grade 4)  ...show
- Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Math
- 2. Measure and estimate liquid volumes and masses of objects using standard units of grams (g), kilograms (kg), and liters (l). Add, subtract, multiply, or divide to solve one-step word problems involving masses or volumes that are given in the same units, e.g., by using drawings (such as a beaker with a measurement scale) to represent the problem. (Grade 3)  ...show
- International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
- Next Generation Science Standards: Science
- 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)  ...show
- Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 3 - 5)  ...show
- Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved. (Grades 3 - 5)  ...show
- Explain how engineers use history to guide their designs.
- Demonstrate problem-solving techniques such as brainstorming and the engineering design process.
- Explain that different shapes have different strengths.
- Realize that triangles are the strongest shape and recognize that they can be found in most structures.
- 10 sheets of copy paper (okay if has printing on it, such as paper from recycle bin)
- roll masking tape
- 20 drinking straws
- 20 paper clips
- 2-3 pre-weighed hard cover books (give each group similarly weighted books)
- small scale for weighing textbooks
- 7 tongue depressors or Popsicle sticks
- 7 large brads
Before the Activity
- Gather materials.
- Collect hard cover books for testing. Weigh each book (if they are different sizes) so that students can calculate how much weight their structures support.
- Make either overhead transparencies or handouts of the Design Process Overhead and Brainstorming Guidelines.
- Make the square and triangle shapes using tongue depressors or Popsicle sticks and brads, as shown in Figure 2.
- Draw a table on the board similar to the one below:
With the Students
- Explain the design process to students and show them the design process handout/transparency . Explain the importance of brainstorming and the suggested guidelines.
- Direct students to use the materials to build structures able to hold a book 1.5"-2" off the ground. Explain that they get 1 minute to decide how to build the structures, 8 minutes to build and then 2 minutes to test, so be ready to work quickly.
- Divide the class into groups of three students each.
- Give each team 10 pieces of paper, 10 straws, 1 roll of masking tape and 10 paper clips.
- Begin timing 1 minute for students to discuss their ideas—remind them that this is the time to use their brainstorming skills.
- When time is up, tell them to begin building. Time 8 minutes for students to build.
- After 8 minutes, stop them and begin testing for 2 minutes. Have students calculate the total weight their structures supported (based on the weight of the pre-weighed books they were able to support before the structures failed).
- Have the students record how much weight their structures supported in the table on the classroom board.
- After the first test, ask students if they were successful. (It is unlikely that students find a solution after the first try.) Review with students what they tried, what worked and what did not work. Ask the class what they think engineers do when they are having a hard time solving a problem. (Lead them towards the ideas of using their knowledge of math and science as well as looking at what has worked in the past.)
- Have students think about different geometric shapes and brainstorm which are the strongest.
- Show students prepared shapes made from tongue depressors and brads. Show them how a square deforms under pressure whereas a triangle does not. Show them that by reinforcing a square or rectangle with a diagonal support (making 2 triangles) the new shape is much stronger.
- Encourage students to try building columns and triangles. Explain that triangles are the strongest shape and can be found in most structures. Brainstorm as a class how to make the structures they are building stronger using their new knowledge of the strength of shapes.
- Give students a second try at re-designing and re-building their structures with their existing materials. Again, provide 1 minute to discuss ideas, 8 minutes to build, and 2 minutes to test.
- Ask students if their structures worked this time. What did they do differently? How did looking to past engineering projects help them?
- Have students record the number of books their structures held in the second trial on the classroom board table.
- Ask students to share their design ideas with the class. As a class, discuss how learning from history and knowing more about the strength of shapes helped them build improved structures the second time.
- Why would an engineer want to learn about history? What could an engineer learn from history that would help them create a good design? (Answer: Engineers study history to learn about past engineering successes and failures, which helps give them ideas of things to try and/or avoid in their new designs.)
- Why is brainstorming important? (Answer: It helps us gather ideas from everyone in the team, allowing the team to come up with creative ideas.)
Activity Embedded Assessment
- For younger students, give them more time to brainstorm and build.
- For older students, reduce the time to build and have them make a longer, more in-depth presentation.
- For more advanced students, challenge them to make a structure that can support a student standing on a textbook (see Figure 3). Have a class competition to see which team can create a structure that holds the most weight.
Taipei 101, Understanding Health Cities. 2005 Taipei City Government. Accessed October 17, 2006. english.taipei.gov.tw/MP_100002.html
Tod Sullivan, Melissa Straten, Katherine Beggs, Denali Lander, Abigail Watrous, Janet Yowell
© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado.
Integrated Teaching and Learning Program and Laboratory, University of Colorado Boulder
Last modified: May 22, 2015