Build a Paper Tower Challenge (Part 1) Defining, Researching and Getting the Specs

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SWBAT use the engineering design to aid them in designing a newspaper tower.

Big Idea

Engineering can be so much fun! We can follow the engineer design process to build a tower by defining the problem, researching and getting the specs.

Teacher Notes

Activity Overview

Check out the 1 minute activity description and preview of the resources below.


This is part 1 of a 5 part series called "Build a Paper Tower Challenge."

NGSS/Common Core Connection

This curriculum engages students in explorations about the science behind the properties of materials, which culminates with students designing and building a model tower. Students have learned about material properties such as strength and flexibility. They will implement what they have learned about shapes and forms used in building from previous lessons to aide them in the planning of a model tower that meets the engineering requirements. The children will use the steps in the engineering design process to help them build a tower.   

My children are familiar with these steps since they were introduced to them in previous engaging lessons, titled Those Darn Squirrels and Ice Scream, You Scream We All Scream for VANILLA Ice Cream! 


Note:  In advance I like to make up folders for my little engineers.  I take a 9 X 12" piece of construction paper and fold it in half.  Then I have the children glue the cover on and write their names on it. I put one copy of each of the pages inside of the folder (5 in all).


5 minutes

I try to activate the children's prior knowledge by asking some questions.

What shapes that we have learned about that are used often in building?

They tell me that the triangle is so mighty that they are frequently used in building structures (see making triangles video clip).  I want them to also think about other things that make a tower strong.

Think back to when we studied about the Watts Towers.  What made Simon Rodia's towers stable?  What makes these famous towers stable? 

I show them the photos of famous Towers to help jog their memory.  They answer that towers are wider at the base and smaller at the top (see strong base video clip).  

What else do you think a tower needs to be?

I want the children to also relate the idea that the structure must be strong, too (Click for a short video clip of our discussion).

We are going to combine all of these ideas together to create towers with partner groups!  I am so excited to tell you about the challenge but first there are some things I want to go over. 


10 minutes

The children have explored how a structure's shape and design influences its strength and stability in previous lessons as stated in the teacher notes.  You might want to consider using those lessons to help your children be prepared for this task.

As you just told me, we have learned about strong shapes, wide bases and other shapes such as the X.  There is also another shape that can be sturdy.  We are going to watch a video in which a man makes a shape with paper that is also strong.  

We watch a 6 minute video of a man creating a tower from cylinders.  He stacks a huge amount of books on the structure.  I want the children to be exposed to yet another shape that will be helpful in this design project.


10 minutes

The children will be creating towers using the engineering design process.  Since it has been awhile since we have used this process, I want to refresh their memory.  We watch this 10 minute cartoon as a refresher of the process.  The cartoon highlights the song that I made up to help the children remember the engineering process.  

Did you remember the song featured in the cartoon that we learned awhile back about the engineering process?  

Before I can say anything more, the children break out into our engineering song (listen to our engineering song video clip).  Using songs and rhythm are a great aide in the memorization of the steps.  I have a feeling that someday, somehow, the children are going to come across an engineering design challenge and will be singing this song! Songs are a super duper memory devise (see reflection).

Now I want turn the conversation to focus on structures.

Using triangles, X's, wide bases and cylinders are a great idea when building.  I have a challenge for you to see if you can use all of these principles to create a strong and stable tower...only using newspaper and tape!  I made a video for you to tell you about this design project.


30 minutes

In the elaboration process, the children use their knowledge and apply it to a new task.  I have the students watch this animated cartoon describing the parameters of this project.  In the video, I have named all of the specifications of the project, except height.  The towers must not be taller than 40 cm.   

You are going to be creating this tower using newspaper and tape.  Thinking about the video where the man was teaching, what do you think we can make with the newspaper to make it sturdy?

Of course the kiddos come up with the idea of using beams.  

You are going to be working with a partner for this challenge.  I would like you to get out your My Clock Buddies sheet.  You will be working with your 12:00 partner.

I would like the children to collaborate with a partner for this challenge.  So I have the children work with their My Clock BuddiesClick here for a short video demonstration.  The children reconvene with their buddy so they can share ideas.

Next I pass out the Build A Tower Challenge Define, Research and Get the Specs worksheet to each child.  I want them to do the thinking together, but I still like them each to be responsible for the own sheet.  

What is the first step in the engineering process? (define the problem)  

I pull up the Engineering Design Define poster on the Smartboard.

I would like you to work with your buddy to define the problem of this challenge.  Read this poster to help you, if needed.  I would also like you to write your answers in complete sentences.

In this case, the problem would be to build a strong and stable tower that can withstand earthquakes and high winds.  I walk around to see that the partners are getting the main idea of the problem.  

What is the next step in the process? (research)

I pull up Engineering Design Research poster to refer to.

Next you need to figure out what ideas we have gathered from research.  Think about our earlier lessons in this unit to help you answer this question.

I consider previous lessons and the video they watched on paper beams to be considered their research.  Thus answers for this box could possibly be that they know triangles and cylinders are strong; and towers should be wider at the base and smaller at the top.  Again I walk around to see that the partners are getting this idea down on their papers.

What is the next step?  (Get the specs)

I pull up Engineering Design Get the Specs poster.

At the bottom of the page there are four boxes where you can put the specifications for this project.  You will only be using the boxes that apply.  You can also write any other specifications on the line.  Why do you think it would be wise to know what the specs are before you start your project? (see video clip for a student answer).

To refresh their memories of the specifications, I also pull up Challenge student directions.  This gives any specs that they need.



5 minutes

We have just a short wrap-up today since I have monitored their progress as they were working.

We talk about how important it is to use the beginning engineering steps before we move on to brainstorming and developing our ideas (click for short video clip of a child's comments).  I think they understand why we use the steps, which is the point of this lesson.  We are ready to move on to brainstorming and developing our ideas.