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Creativity, innovative thinking, teamwork, resilience. These are just a few of the skills students develop in engineering-focused STEM lessons. Engineering is about more than analyzing a set of predicted results—instead, it asks kids to critically observe the world and solve the problems they find.
Engineering tasks differ from science experiments in a few key ways. Both scientists and engineers observe and ask questions, but then their goals diverge. Scientists are looking for logical explanations to back up their observations; engineers use their observations to identify problems or needs that aren’t being met—and then they create solutions.
We chose nine engineering lessons from Scholastic’s award-winning SuperScience and Science World magazines that exemplified the type of open-ended projects that push learning to the next level. Our favorite part of these lessons? There is no single “correct” answer, so your students can explore, investigate, and explain their own unique outcomes!
Environmental engineers use a variety of tools to learn about the weather and how it impacts different areas of the world. Here, students practice innovative thinking and creative design to create a functioning weather tool.
Guiding Question: What features does a weather tool need to measure the weather?
NGSS Standards: ESS2.D; ETS1
What You Need: Tool Design Sheet, various materials (e.g., paper cups and plates, pencils, rulers, scissors, masking tape, markers, straws, plastic bottles, metal cans, empty boxes, construction paper)
What to Do: First, define three main types of weather tools and discuss their purpose:
- A weather vane shows which way the wind is blowing. This tool often features an arrow that points to where the wind is coming from.
- An anemometer (left) measures wind speed by connecting several cups in a wheel shape, which then spins when the wind blows.
- A rain gauge is a container that measures how much rain falls.
When discussing these types of weather tools, ask students why they think we use them. Show them the materials on hand, and explain that they can design their own variation of a weather vane, an anemometer, or a rain gauge. Give them time to explore using the materials. Students can use our Tool Design Sheet to brainstorm or draw their tools. End the lesson by taking your new weather tools outdoors and testing them!
Tip: Don’t have the right weather conditions outside? Use a fan and a watering can to create your own “wind” and “rain” inside.
The Ideal Ramp
Ramps are a key feature in many types of engineering designs, from wheelchair and skateboard ramps to roller coasters and highway ramps. Explore forces and motion by learning about the different factors that affect how an object will move down a ramp.
Guiding Question: How can you make an object move farther down a ramp?
NGSS Standards: PS2.A; PS2.B; ETS1
What You Need: Game board (or cardboard), books, masking tape, several plastic water bottles filled with varying amounts of liquid, empty boxes of various sizes
What to Do: Make a ramp using a folded game board or a piece of cardboard and books, and then tape the pieces into place. Set one empty box in front of the ramp, and roll a water bottle down the ramp. If the box moves, put a piece of tape on the floor to mark its new position. Ask students, “What one thing could you change about the box, the bottle, or the ramp to make the box move farther?” Start out by testing one change at a time, such as creating a steeper ramp, rolling a heavier bottle, or using a smaller box, and then encourage students to experiment with any combination of changes.
Tip: Mark the box’s movement with tape each time you test the ramp to see which experiment moves the bottle the farthest!
Engineers use machines called wind turbines to harness the power of wind as a renewable energy source. Students will learn how to create effective turbine blades by modifying a simple base in this fun introduction to the study of wind energy!
Guiding Question: What would help a turbine catch the wind better?
NGSS Standards: PS2.A; PS2.B; ETS1
What You Need: Super Spinner Cone Template, pencils, scissors, tape, paper, index cards, straws, Popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, egg cartons, feathers
What to Do: Download and print the pattern and simple directions for the Super Spinner Cone. Once students have constructed their cones, they should rest the finished cone over a pencil point, and blow on it gently. It may shift slightly, but it will not spin in the wind. Next, show them a video of wind turbines, windmills, or even a pinwheel in action, and ask them to identify the features that make these structures spin in the wind. Students can then modify their cones in a way that helps them spin by adding various lightweight materials, such as paper “blades” or individual egg cups from an egg carton. Have kids test several different designs to see which materials best help their cone “catch the wind.”
Tip: Make sure kids balance out their modifications. If they add materials to only one side, the cone will fall off the pencil!
Prosthetic-hand design is an engineering marvel. Have kids design a “hand” that can perform a simple task.
Guiding Question: Can you design a “hand” that will pick up a paper cup without spilling its contents?
NGSS Standards: PS2.A; ETS1
What You Need: Rulers, Dixie cups, marbles, cardboard scraps, scissors, rubber bands, masking tape, other construction materials (paper clips, metal brads, unsharpened pencils, string, clothespins, pipe cleaners, etc.)
What to Do: Put students into pairs or small groups and have each group place a paper cup with a marble in it on the desk in front of them. Holding a ruler in one hand, students should try to slide the ruler under the cup and pick it up without spilling the marble. Explain that each group will modify their rulers to allow them to pick up the cup without letting the marble spill out. Make sure students are only altering the ruler, not the cup! Ask them to think about different ways a cup can be held—for example, how would tongs grip a cup differently than a car’s cup holder?
Keep this project open-ended by allowing students to experiment with various materials, such as clothespins, string, pipe cleaners, and so on, and encourage different approaches to the challenge. Some may design an attachment that lifts the cup from below, while others may create a claw that grabs it from above! They can continue to change and test the design.
Tip: Create other challenges for students to solve with their new “hands,” such as turning the pages of a book.
Build a Bridge
When engineers design a bridge, they have many challenges. Students will explore how two types of bridges hold weight, and use that knowledge to design a stronger bridge.
Guiding Question: What kinds of designs make bridges stronger?
NGSS Standards: PS2.B; ETS1
What You Need: At least two 3" x 5" index cards per student, rulers, pennies, scissors, books
What to Do: Make two stacks of books the same height, with a gap of 4 inches between them. Lead students in constructing two different types of bridges.
- Arch bridge: Make two parallel cuts on each of the short sides of the index card (1.5" apart). Make an arch with the card and fold the four outer flaps so they’re perpendicular to the base of the arch. Wedge the card between the books, with the center flap pointing down and the folded flaps flush against the books.
- Accordion bridge: Fold the index card lengthwise like an accordion, with .5"-wide folds.
Lay the the accordion bridge across the books. Guess how many pennies you can place on each bridge before it falls. Test the guess by slowly adding pennies to each bridge until it collapses.
Tip: To extend the lesson, students can experiment with other bridge styles, or they can create a new design entirely!
Engineers often look to the natural world for ideas. In this challenge, students will design a tool that can grab hard-to-reach objects by modeling their creations after a lizard’s tongue.
Guiding Question: What properties of a tool help it grab objects from hard-to-reach places?
NGSS Standards: LS1.A; ETS1
What You Need: Two tall glasses, measuring cup, raw lentils, dried spaghetti, double-sided tape, glue, scissors, paper, timer, base tongue materials (string, party blowouts, pipe cleaners, chopsticks, straws)
What to Do: First, students pour a half cup of dried lentils into a tall glass to represent “ants.” The challenge will be to grab the ants out of the glass with a model “tongue.” Have each student choose one or more of the tongue materials listed above. Provide them with scissors, tape, and other materials they can use to adapt their tongues, and then have them practice trying to grab the ants. After they’ve had a few tries, let the games begin!
- ROUND 1: Set a timer for 30 seconds and see how many ants students can grab with their tongues in that time.
- ROUND 2: Pour a half cup of dried lentils into the other glass. Break two strands of spaghetti into small pieces, and mix these in with the lentils. Tell students to imagine the lentils are ants and the spaghetti pieces are thorns. Then, have them take several minutes to update their tongue’s design. Set a timer for 30 seconds and see how many ants students can grab with their tongues while avoiding the thorns.
Tip: Add additional challenges to the game! For example: if students pick up a thorn along with any ants, they must discard their ants and start over.
Your future engineers will have a blast creating a solar oven, and then testing their design by making s’mores!
Guiding Question: How can you harness solar energy to build a working oven?
NGSS Standards: PS3.B; ETS1.C
What You Need: Two jumbo-size empty cereal boxes, scissors, aluminum foil, glue, two thermometers, plastic wrap, tape, two straws, four graham crackers, eight marshmallows, one chocolate bar
What to Do: Cut a three-sided flap out of the front of each cereal box, making sure the flap folds open on a long side. Line the inside of one box with aluminum foil, including the sides and inner surface of the flap. Try to keep the foil as smooth as possible. Complete the following steps for both boxes: Place a thermometer inside; cut a piece of plastic wrap large enough to cover the opening created by the flap, and tape it over the opening; tape a straw to the front so that it props up the flap and allows sunlight to enter the box. Preheat by placing both boxes in direct sunlight for 30 minutes. Then, for each box, lift a corner of the plastic wrap and place four graham cracker halves with a marshmallow on top inside. Re-tape and leave both boxes in the sun. After 45 minutes, lift the wrap and place chocolate on top of each marshmallow. Re-cover and place in sunlight for another 20 minutes. Uncover the boxes and observe which piece of chocolate has melted more.
Tip: Make sure students record their observations after each stage—they’ll love discussing their findings over s’mores!
Engineers consider many factors when designing rockets. Have kids explore how the length affects how far a rocket can travel.
Guiding Question: How does the shape of a rocket affect how far it will travel?
NGSS Standards: PS2.A; ETS1
What You Need: Paper, rulers, sharpened pencils, scissors, tape, straws, measuring tape, Rocket Fin Template
What to Do: First, have each student draw and cut out three rectangles of different lengths—all rectangles should be 1.5" wide. They will be used to make separate rockets. Next, kids cut out all six rocket fins from Science World’s printable template. To create a rocket, line up the long end of the rectangle with a pencil, roll the paper around the pencil, and tape the tube closed. Lay two fins on either side of the pencil so that the tube is sandwiched between them. Position the fins so that the bottom of the triangle is lined up with the bottom of the tube (near the pencil’s eraser) and the tab that sticks out is parallel to the length of the tube. Use tape to attach the tabs of both fins to the rocket tube, and then bend the triangles of the fins so that they are positioned at 90-degree angles to each other. Then, move the tube along the pencil until its top end is above the sharpened end of the pencil, and seal the tube with tape. Remove the rocket from the pencil. Once all three rockets have been created, place straws inside the tubes. Divide the class into pairs. While standing against a wall, one student should hold the first rocket parallel to the floor and blow into the straw to launch it, while her partner marks the point at which it hits the ground, measures the distance of the trajectory, and makes a note of it. Complete three trials for each rocket. Finally, have students choose their own best rocket and have an all-class competition!
Tip: Have only one person in each pair launch all of the rockets to ensure accurate results!
In this activity, students create electric sparks through the exploration of conductive materials.
Guiding Question: How can you create an electric spark?
NGSS Standard: PS3.B
What You Need: Aluminum pie pan, Styrofoam cup and plate, masking tape, wool fabric
What to Do: First, students will turn a pie pan into a simple electricity conductor. To make a handle for the pan, place a Styrofoam cup upside down in the pan and attach with masking tape. Place a Styrofoam plate upside down on the table, and rub it with wool fabric for 10 seconds. Pick up the pan by holding the handle, and place it on top of the plate; have students touch the pan to check for a shock. Next, separate the pan and the plate and repeat the procedure several times, rubbing the pie pan for different time increments each time (for a maximum of 60 seconds). Then, dim the lights and have kids pick up the pan using the handle, being careful not to touch the metal. Slowly bring a finger toward the center of the bottom of the pan. With the lights dimmed, they may be able to see a small spark—their own version of lightning!
Tip: To extend the lesson, have students try touching the pie pan with different materials, such as a paper clip or a rubber eraser.
Photos: Adam Chinitz
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