House of Cards

Standards Met: NGSS ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting an Engineering Problem; ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions; McREL Life Skills: Working With Others Standard 4 (Displays effective interpersonal communication skills)

What you need: Several hundred index cards, markers, rulers

What to do: In her fourth- and fifth-grade classes in Dallas, Brooke Thomas starts the school year with an activity that’s part getting-to-know-you game and part engineering challenge.

Thomas divides students into groups of two to four and gives each group a stack of 30 or more index cards, markers, and a ruler. She challenges each team to build a 10-inch-tall structure using only the index cards. “I like to see how students solve this challenge in a variety of ways, so I try not to give hints,” she says. “I want to see how they problem-solve.” What makes this activity such a great community builder? On each card, students must write one common group trait, interest, or quality. (For example, one group might write, “We all love spaghetti” or “Our birthdays are in June.”) If kids get stuck finding shared traits, suggest conversation starters, such as “Do you have siblings? Family pets?”

By the time the towers reach 10 inches, the foundation for new friendships will be laid.

Towers of Tiny Glasses

Standards Met: NGSS ETS1.A; ETS1.B; McREL Life Skills: Working With Others Standard 5 (Demonstrates leadership skills)

What you need: Per group: 48 mouthwash--size plastic cups, one ruler

What to do: Tracey K. Graham, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Westgate Alternative Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, starts her activity with this question: What is the tallest structure you can make in 20 minutes using 48 tiny glasses?

Graham divides students into groups of three to four, providing each with 48 cups (if you can, use a different color for each group) and a ruler. She instructs students to work together to build a structure that’s both tall and stable. When time is up, Graham and her students measure each tower. She might ask questions such as “Which tower is most stable? Why?”

Students take notes as they work so they can share their process, failures, and successes. To get kids thinking about teamwork, ask each group to consider how the team roles broke down: Was there a group leader? How did the team divide the workload? “I also stop the activity every five minutes so groups can get ideas from one another,” says Graham, who blogs at Growing a STEM Classroom.

Bridge to Nowhere

Standards Met: NGSS ETS1.A; ETS1.B

What you need: 200-plus paint stir sticks, few hundred washers or objects of similar weight, measuring tape

What to do: Cantilevered spans, or bridges, are usually built of steel and concrete. But Brian Crosby, a former upper-elementary teacher who now facilitates STEM lessons for educators in northern Nevada, has his students collaborate to create theirs using nothing but paint stir sticks and washers.

First, Crosby does a lesson demonstrating how to build a span. He then splits young engineers into groups and challenges them to make as long a span as possible, starting from the edge of a desk and extending outward.

Students may use as many washers and stir sticks as they want, but they alone must design and implement solutions. “The problem solving and perseverance this inquiry activity requires is awe-inspiring,” says Crosby, who designed it in collaboration with colleagues Ken Wesson and Lou Loftin. On his blog, Learning Is Messy, Crosby suggests extending the lesson by asking questions such as “What is the longest length you could create if you only had X washers or X paint stirrers?”

The Marshmallow Challenge

Standards Met: NGSS ETS1.A; ETS1.B; McREL Life Skills: Working with Others Standard 1 (Contributes to the overall effort of a group)

What you need: Per team: 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, one marshmallow

What to do: Danielle Krantz creates community in her classroom at James Bowie Middle School in Richmond, Texas, by breaking out her secret weapon: marshmallows. Krantz, who blogs at Live Love Math, starts the year with the Marshmallow Challenge, a team-building activity that incorporates engineering and problem solving.

Teams must use the provided materials to build the tallest possible freestanding structure (students often tape lengths of spaghetti together to create super-tall “legs”), and top it with a marshmallow. Time limit: 18 minutes. The key to success is to consider how the tower will support the marshmallow at the beginning of the process.

“Many students build the structure as tall as they can and then put the marshmallow on top…and watch it collapse,” says Krantz. “In this challenge, the marshmallows might as well weigh as much as a brick!”


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Photo: Courtesy of Brian Crosby and Lou Loftin