Monday, February 16, 2015

Building Engineers Part One: Future Structural Engineers

In this blogging series, I will be highlighting some of the ways I have been able to incorporate engineering activities into my classroom. For several years, engineering was the part of the STEM acronym that I struggled with the most. This year I have been brave enough to experiment, and the results have been phenomenal! 

I happened upon this pin at some point this year and made a mental note that I wanted to do something similar. Measurement appears this quarter on my district's curriculum map, but we are knee-deep in addition and subtraction to 20 at this point. So I have had to get creative to squeeze in those measurement standards, too. I thought this structural engineering project (during our Science time) would be the perfect way to do that. 

I started by asking parents to send in some materials for us to borrow. One mom of four boys came in the next day with an entire wagon full of exactly what I needed! We ended up with Legos (™), Duplos (™), Mega Blocks (™), Lincoln Logs (™), Tinker Toys (™), Magformers (™), and K'Nex (™). If you're keeping count, that was enough for seven groups! I have 25 students this year, so I was very happy to be able to keep the groups small. 

On the first day, I just let my little stars play with the materials to familiarize themselves with them. They tried to build the tallest structures they could, and they quickly learned that this was more challenging with some of the materials than the others. I also learned that many of my kids had no experience with some of the toys. 

Tallest structures using Legos (™) and Tinker Toys (™)

I also introduced the concept of nonstandard measurement by having them try to measure their structures using whatever they wanted - their hands, feet, pencils, books, etc. - and they quickly saw that one group's "4 hands tall" was different from another group's. We ended that day with a discussion about their challenges and the need for a more standardized unit of measure. 

The next few afternoons, I showed them photographs of famous structures on the Promethean board and asked them to try to recreate them using their materials. We tried an Egyptian pyramid, the Taj Mahal, and the Parthenon, but the structures that were the most successful for them with all of the different materials were the Eiffel Tower and the Tower Bridge in London. 

Eiffel Tower using Legos (™)

Eiffel Tower using Lincoln Logs (™)

Eiffel Tower using Mega Blocks (™)

Each time, they measured their structures using a non-standard unit and a standard unit (inches on a tape measure) and recorded the results. 

Tower Bridge using K'Nex (™)

Tower Bridge using Tinker Toys (™) and dry erase markers as non-standard unit of measure

Tower Bridge using Magformers (™) and inches as a standard unit

For a free download of the recording sheet we used, click {here}.

Throughout the week, my kids photographed some of their structures with iPads (we have a cart of 30 in my school) and then blogged about the experience on their KidBlogs. I was thrilled to see posts like, "This was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be," and "We had to work together as a team." This also allowed the other kids to see each other's structures that they may not have seen during the actual building phase. 

The level of engagement during this time each day was intense. My kids asked all day long when they would get to "build," and I was just as anxious. 

Leaders emerged, discussions ensued, and learning solidified. 

Mission accomplished. 

Projects like this, especially those related to STEM, are so important to include as often as possible because kids don't always have these experiences outside of the classroom. If we are going to encourage kids to pursue careers in the engineering field, we need to give them opportunities to experiment with these kinds of hands-on activities. I had to step outside of my comfort zone, but the results were worth the risk. 


  1. These are some great ideas! I am currently a final year intern in a residency program and I incorporated a STEM lesson similar as far as the building with a variety of materials back in November. The focus was on representing collected data on a bar graph. I would love if you could check out my blog and perhaps provide any feedback (: