Thousands of Tiny Pieces Can Create Something BIG!

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SWBAT state that a larger item can be built from small pieces. It can then be disassembled and made into something new.

Big Idea

Simon Rodia built the Watts Towers by gathering fragments of "junk" he found in the neighborhood. He put all of these small pieces together to build a spectacular tower. Something BIG can be created from lots of smaller pieces.

Teacher notes

Activity Description

In previous lessons (see link A and B), we read a book about Simon Rodia and the Watts Towers.  This lesson combines the learning of both of the books.  

NGSS/Common Core Connections

In the NGSS, one of the performance expectations is to make observations to construct an evidence-based account of how an object made with a small set of pieces can be disassembled and made into a new object. One of the disciplinary core ideas of this is the understanding that a great variety of objects can be built up from a small set of pieces.  This lesson highlights that disciplinary core idea.


  • paper cut into little shapes--you could use just about any shape you want cut from any colored paper that you have on hand.  I used our school's die-cut machine to cut shapes from construction paper
  • baggies to put the little shapes into--1 per partner group

Advanced Teacher Prep:  You will need to cut the shapes and put a handful into each bag.  You will need one bag per partner group.  To be honest, I don't count how many go into each bag since it really doesn't matter.  I just grabbed a handful and plunked them right into the bags (see photos).  I then label these "shape bags."



5 minutes

I call the have the children remain in their seats for this part of the discussion since it is short and I will need them at their seats for the next part.

We have been having so much fun learning about Simon Rodia!  What are some words we can use to describe him?

The kids come up with the words imaginative, creative, brave, nice, self-less (yes, they came up with this word themselves!).  Anytime I can work some language arts practice of characterization into the mix, I am happy.

Today we are going to look very closely at his beautiful work. What types of materials did he use to create his towers?

To my surprise, the children come up with the basics--sand, cement and steel.  Then one girl comments that he also used lots of bits of "junk" that he found in the neighborhood.

How can tiny bits of pieces be used to create something? We are going to be taking a close look at parts of the towers that showcase the "junk."

I want the children to start looking at not just the entire structure that Rodia created, but also at all of the bits and pieces that he used to create this tower to help them understand the disciplinary core ideas of things can be made from smaller pieces.



15 minutes

I want the children to understand the concept that tiny pieces can be put together to make something larger, in a simple way.   So I give them a bag of little pieces that I have made in advance (see teacher notes) called "exploration bags."

First I have the children quickly go into partner groups.  We use My Clock Buddies to do this quickly.  Here is a video clip that shows My Clock Buddies in action. After the children have assembled in their partner groups, we start the exploration.

Each partner group received a bag with tiny pieces in it. I would like you to take the pieces out and lay them on your workspace.  Then I would like the person who is the oldest to make a design with those pieces. You have 3 minutes, so you will have to work quickly.

I have the students work one at a time, since it would be hard for the students to have the same "vision" for this quick exercise.  If we were working on a more lengthy project, I would have had them work out their idea together. I keep the time to 3 minutes so it does not turn into an elaborate process.  We are going to use the same pieces to create another design, so I also don't want them to be disappointed when we put the pieces back into a pile.  I just want them to get the idea that you can make something from small pieces.

When the time is over, we quickly discuss the results and briefly share what they have made.

What did you make?  Did you use all of the pieces?  Now I would like you to push the pieces back together.  Do you think something new can be made from the pieces?  Why do you think that way?

I am trying to get the children to realize that you can make a different design with the same pieces.  So the students push the pieces back together.  Then I instruct the other partner to do make a different design using the same pieces (see design 12, 3 and 4).

Were you able to make a different design?  What made your designs different?  Did anyone create the same design as someone else?  Do you think the pieces are in the exact same place?  What makes one design different from another?

I ask the students these questions to get them thinking like a scientist.  You can create all sorts of things from tiny pieces, take it apart and then build something else.  I collect their exploration bags so we are ready for the next step.


25 minutes

Next I have the children view a Google slide presentation on Simon Rodia and his towers.  

To have the presentation work correctly, make sure to click on present from beginning in the upper right hand corner of your screen.  I choose to use the slide show at this time since it really highlights his actual works so the children can see his works up close.  The presentation helps the children bring all of the ideas learned in the books to real life.  Neither of the books has many actual photos, so they love seeing the actual towers.  

In the presentation itself, the children are asked questions and asked to make a reflection at the end..."What will you do to make a change in he world?"

We stop and reflect on that particular idea.  It is interesting to see how innovative their ideas are, such a mobile dance studio, portable care and a special saddle!

I also want to incorporate the idea that objects can be built up from a small set of pieces. This is a great project for doing just that.  I pull up three photos that show the use of many pieces to make a single structure (mosaichearts and pieces).

What materials did Rodia use to build his towers?  How do you suppose using smaller pieces helps to build a whole unit?  Do you think that same set of pieces could have been used to create something different?

The goal we are working towards is learning that an object made of small pieces can be disassembled and made into a new object.



10 minutes

I gather the children back in the corner.

Today we looked closely at the Watts Towers.  What did we learn in today's lesson?   

Instead of summing up the lesson for them, I would like them to be doing this for themselves.  I am trying to see if they can come up with the idea that you can use a set of pieces to make something.  I also want them to start understanding that you can make something new with the same set of pieces.  It was wonderful hearing my students come up with these ideas (see video clip).  I think we are ready for the next step, making their own Watts Towers from a small set of tiny pieces!