Building Towers

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SWBAT make sense of a(n irresistible engineering) problem and persevere in solving it.

Big Idea

It's the day before winter break, and kids are ready for a holiday. This activity ensures that they're engaged, excited, and happy to be working hard, even with a break just hours away!

Opener: Today You Have a Challenge

3 minutes

It's the last day before winter break!  During my second year of teaching, I realized that things had to be done a little differently on this particular day.  Everyone - both students and teachers - are rightly excited to have made it through December and to have a much-needed break coming up.  Rather than pretending that it's just another day of instruction or giving an exam, I like turn this into a festive, social, high-spirited event.  This is how I've spent every last-day-before-winter-break for the last nine years.

As students arrive, I say that there's going to be a team challenge today, and everyone should be in groups of four or five.  While groups form, I say that everyone is going to get the same limited supplies: newspaper and a small roll of tape.  Some years, I've used one copy of the New York Post, other years, I've found other sorts of smaller papers around the building.  This year, I rescued old copies of a short local paper from the recycling bin, and each group got five copies of that 32-page newspaper.  

"No one gets more than they get," I say. "so make sure you conserve your newspaper and use it wisely.  The same goes for the tape - this roll is all you're going to get.  Once you run out, it's gone!"  I use dollar store rolls of invisible tape - enough to get by, but not enough that it can be unrolled mindlessly.

Then I tell everyone the challenge: by only using these supplies, build the tallest tower possible!

When each group is formed, I give them the supplies, and they're on their way.

Work Time: Tower Building

35 minutes

Things always start slowly.  A few kids will wonder why the heck we're doing this.  It's important just to smile and urge them on.  "How tall can you get your tower to go?" I ask.

Every five minutes, I tell the class how much time they have left.  With 30 minutes to go, as everyone is starting to get excited about the task, I take a round of clarifying questions and I provide a few more details about the assignment:

  1. The tower must stand on its own.  It cannot be taped to the desk, to the ceiling, or to anything else.  "In other words, the tape can only be used to attach newspaper to newspaper," I say.
  2. "At the end of class, I'm going to try to knock your tower down," I say, to a mixture of groans and anticipatory giggles.  "I'm going to see if your tower can withstand an earthquake," I say, as I shake a desk, "and I'm going to huff and puff like the Big Bad Wolf and try to blow your tower down."  Towers have to stay standing through both kinds of natural disaster.
  3. When time runs out, there should be no trace of any trash at your group's table.  There should be a tower, and nothing else, so make sure that you're keeping things clean and neat as you go.

With five minutes left, I remind everyone to make sure that they're leaving no trace around their table and their tower.  Other than that, there's not much to say.  I walk around and check in with kids about their holiday plans, and I express my delight at how their towers are coming along.  I might let someone put on some music or hand out snacks, if I've got them.  Home-baked oatmeal-raisin-chocolate-chip cookies are my go-to.

As the day progresses, later classes have the advantage of looking at the work of earlier classes.  It's cool to see when each breakthrough happens: a group might have the insight that tightly rolled newspapers are very strong, and then that will a feature of a lot of towers for the rest of the day.  Some years - and 2013 was one - a group comes up with a tetrahedron-based design.  Once these ideas arise from a class, they're then refined by successive classes with little input from me.  It's brilliant stuff.

Check out the photos I've posted here.  They tell a better story than my words, and it's so much more fun to let you look than to write about it.  These photos are arranged in chronological order, spanning the day.


Debrief and Closing Circle

5 minutes

I count down the final five minutes to the end of the competition, which ends with five minutes left in class.  When time runs out, I tell everyone to take their hands off their towers and to sweep for trash one last time.  Then I tell everyone to circle up.

When we're all circled up, I give the class a hand and let everyone enjoy the sight of our newly-built city for a few moments.  Then, I go from tower to tower and subject them to the pair of natural disasters.  In most classes, about half of the towers will fall down, but it's rare for a group to be surprised by that, and it's not to hard to keep spirits high.  Watching a few towers fall is part of the fun.  Even more fun is seeing that a well-built tower can withstand quite a strong "earthquake".

If a tower is still standing, we measure it.  This year, the winners during period 1 built a 70-inch tower.  As the day progressed, periods 2 and 4 surpassed 90 inches, which required some temporary adjustment of our ceiling tiles.  The last period class really ran with the tetrahedron design that arose during period 4, and one group built a tower that went from the floor to the ceiling, over ten feet tall.

After measurements are taken, I ask the class to give the winners a round of applause, and we have just a little time to reflect on what went well before we all say happy new year and be safe!