Day 1: Engineering Paper Towers

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SWBAT: Follow the design process to construct a paper tower that doesn't fall from the force of a fan.

Big Idea

Engineering and science are two disciplines that will drive the future of our society. Students will develop an understanding of the design process and the iterative design.


This challenge is based on an NSTA journal article on Technology and Engineering. It can be used to teach technology and engineering standards, as it incorporates orthographic drawings, identifying and addressing constraints, drawing a tower as a system, developing prototypes/troubleshooting, and communicating the solution. Critical thinking skills are stressed. Students really enjoy this lesson.  

This series of lessons helps build student proficiency towards the following standards:

MS-ETS1-1.   Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.

MS-ETS1-2.   Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

MS-ETS1-3.   Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.

MS-ETS1-4.   Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.

Science and Engineering Practices:

1. Asking Questions and Defining Problems

2. Developing and Using Models

8. Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Crosscutting Concepts: Patterns

Lesson breakdown:
Introduce the challenge, assign groups (2-3 students), have partners brainstorm ideas for addressing the challenge, identify constraints and design a final drawing.
Day 2: 
Have students build their tower
Tip: designate an area in your classroom where students can stow their towers by period.  Have them write their names on the tower with a marker, so that it is easy to find the next day.
Day 3: 
Test day!  You'll need an oscillating fan and tape to secure the towers to the floor.  

Aspects of the assignment:

  1. Each student will turn in an orthographic projection on a single piece of graph paper.
  2. Each student will submit a picture that depicts the tower as a system: (Goal, inputs, processes, outputs and feedback).
  3. The tower itself.
  4. A journal that documents the issues that they troubleshooting and redesigned and a description of the constraints that they addressed.  This fulfills the "communicating the solution" to their problem.

Prior to having kids engineer solutions to everyday problems, we spend grade 6 learning about the design steps to solve fun challenges. The paper tower challenge is one of my students' favorite ones. In this activity  students are given 20 pieces of standard printer paper and 2 meters of tape. They are then instructed to design, build and test a tower that is at least a meter tall and can withstand the force of a fan turned on high for 30 seconds.

Good resource: Incorporating Engineering Design Challenges into STEM Courses

Introducing the Challenge

10 minutes

Students were jazzed from the aluminum foil boat lesson, so to hook their attention I simply ask, "Who wants to do another engineering challenge?!" All students immediately get excited and I had their attention as I explained the next challenge.  

For this challenge students get 20 pieces of paper and 2 meters of tape to build a tower that is at least 1 meter tall, withstanding the force of fan turned on high for 30 seconds.

I explain to students that they will follow the engineering design process to ensure that the best design solutions are used.

Once students understand the challenge, it is time to research the problem.

Identifying the Need and Researching the Problem

45 minutes

Prior to constructing prototypes, engineers research possible solutions to make sure that they are creating the best tower. I want my students to understand that engineering - just like science - is based on improving the ideas of those before us. I give students the opportunity to research towers and then use the information to design possible solutions.  

I ask students to search various towers using computers and take out books from the school library. This is an insurance policy just in case the WiFi isn't working.

Students then collect observations which will be used to drive the development of possible solutions. This helps students develop their ability to perform SP8 Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information.  

To support students while they come up with solutions and to maximize learning, I instruct students to come up with at least 3 possible solutions. I tell them to use their tower research as inspiration.  

Sharing What We Learned

5 minutes

Tomorrow students will take all of their ideas and design one tower with their partner. I give students 5 minutes at the end of class to share what they discovered with their partner.

I explain that they will be developing one solution, possibly a combination of each partner's ideas, for the tower. They will finalize their ideas at the beginning of class tomorrow and then begin developing detailed blue prints.

This video shows students discussing what they learned and more specific design features: