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April 7, 2010

Encourage Creativity With Engineering Activities

By Victoria Jasztal
Grades 3–5

    In my six years of teaching, I have learned a valuable lesson: One cannot always provide clear-cut instructions or directions for their students on how to create something. Sometimes, the teacher has to provide a little leeway, let their students explore and determine which way is best.

    I remember in the past when I toiled over letting my students complete specific experiments, whether they were too challenging to follow. I noticed how much I have evolved recently when I glanced at instructions on how to construct a catapult from last year; would my students really learn about engineering? It was then that I decided that I would provide the materials and they would come up with their own design. If they failed at getting their catapults to work efficiently, then they would learn from their failures. Of course I talked about effective design first and then I uttered a simple statement, "Your catapult needs two things: flingability and sturdiness." Of course, flingability is not a word, yet it got the point across.

    Today's post is about letting go and believing in your students' reasoning/engineering/creativity skills. It is something that teachers need to do more often. Not everything your students create needs to be a carbon copy.

    Engineering/Building Ideas

    Provide materials for your students where they can explore and come up with the design they feel will work the best for them. Balsa wood is a very popular material you can provide for your students to construct a variety of objects. Having students build rockets, catapults, and structures like bridges or "skyscrapers" encourages them to come up with original, different ideas. These websites either have ideas or can be used in conjunction with engineering/building lessons:

    An excellent way to find other hands-on activities that encourage creativity is typing "Odyssey of the Mind Spontaneous Activities" into the search engine of your choice. Here are a few links:

    Other Challenges that Bring Out Creativity

    Of course, engineering is not the only way to bring out creativity in your students.

    • Capturing Creativity with a Digital Camera
    • Roadside Architecture
    • Students, of course, can plan their own schools, aquariums, theme parks, museums, stores, and restaurants. They can plan their own vacations as well, using various resources.
    • Students can make instruments like rain sticks, drums, and flutes to explore the properties of sound. 
    • Students can sketch out floor plans for homes to explore area, perimeter, and other areas of math. Here is one of the examples I have posted in the classroom for my students: 

    IMG_7025

    The important thing is that if you educate your students thoroughly about a topic and provide them with the resources they need, they will look back on the information you shared with them as well as their own schema to be successful.

    Photos of Creative Thinking in Ms. Jasztal's Fourth Grade Class:

    IMG_6833

    Students constructed roller coasters in class where they had to send a marble through a "track" with loops and drops. Every group had their successes!

    IMG_6837

    At first, their arm on their catapult was not working well, but their objects were able to fling a few feet after they made some adjustments.

    IMG_6839 - Copy

    These boys thought their catapult was going to launch objects farther, but it was still quite successful. It was still different from everyone else's design!

    IMG_6838 - Copy

    The most successful design was on the right, but the design on the left was the one used last year. These two budding engineers came to a compromise to make a great arm for the catapult on the left.


    In my six years of teaching, I have learned a valuable lesson: One cannot always provide clear-cut instructions or directions for their students on how to create something. Sometimes, the teacher has to provide a little leeway, let their students explore and determine which way is best.

    I remember in the past when I toiled over letting my students complete specific experiments, whether they were too challenging to follow. I noticed how much I have evolved recently when I glanced at instructions on how to construct a catapult from last year; would my students really learn about engineering? It was then that I decided that I would provide the materials and they would come up with their own design. If they failed at getting their catapults to work efficiently, then they would learn from their failures. Of course I talked about effective design first and then I uttered a simple statement, "Your catapult needs two things: flingability and sturdiness." Of course, flingability is not a word, yet it got the point across.

    Today's post is about letting go and believing in your students' reasoning/engineering/creativity skills. It is something that teachers need to do more often. Not everything your students create needs to be a carbon copy.

    Engineering/Building Ideas

    Provide materials for your students where they can explore and come up with the design they feel will work the best for them. Balsa wood is a very popular material you can provide for your students to construct a variety of objects. Having students build rockets, catapults, and structures like bridges or "skyscrapers" encourages them to come up with original, different ideas. These websites either have ideas or can be used in conjunction with engineering/building lessons:

    An excellent way to find other hands-on activities that encourage creativity is typing "Odyssey of the Mind Spontaneous Activities" into the search engine of your choice. Here are a few links:

    Other Challenges that Bring Out Creativity

    Of course, engineering is not the only way to bring out creativity in your students.

    • Capturing Creativity with a Digital Camera
    • Roadside Architecture
    • Students, of course, can plan their own schools, aquariums, theme parks, museums, stores, and restaurants. They can plan their own vacations as well, using various resources.
    • Students can make instruments like rain sticks, drums, and flutes to explore the properties of sound. 
    • Students can sketch out floor plans for homes to explore area, perimeter, and other areas of math. Here is one of the examples I have posted in the classroom for my students: 

    IMG_7025

    The important thing is that if you educate your students thoroughly about a topic and provide them with the resources they need, they will look back on the information you shared with them as well as their own schema to be successful.

    Photos of Creative Thinking in Ms. Jasztal's Fourth Grade Class:

    IMG_6833

    Students constructed roller coasters in class where they had to send a marble through a "track" with loops and drops. Every group had their successes!

    IMG_6837

    At first, their arm on their catapult was not working well, but their objects were able to fling a few feet after they made some adjustments.

    IMG_6839 - Copy

    These boys thought their catapult was going to launch objects farther, but it was still quite successful. It was still different from everyone else's design!

    IMG_6838 - Copy

    The most successful design was on the right, but the design on the left was the one used last year. These two budding engineers came to a compromise to make a great arm for the catapult on the left.


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