Welcome to our fourth engineering challenge post to help you keep your students engaged the last few weeks of school.  (You can find the first three challenges here, here, and here.)

You’ll see in this post, as in previous posts, that my intention is not to provide an entire NGSS-aligned lesson plan.  My goal is to share resources you can use to design a lesson that meets your specific classroom needs.

Our fourth challenge is The Ice Cube Insulator Challenge paired with One Hot Summer Day by Nina Crews.

This challenge is a common one you have probably seen (or even tried) before.  It is a tremendous engineering challenge that explicitly addresses:

• K-PS3-2 Use tools and materials to design and build a structure that will reduce the warming effect of sunlight on an area.  So, it is often used as the “go-to” challenge for that performance expectation.  Yet, because it also addresses the engineering performance expectations shown below, the challenge can be adapted for any grade level.
• K-2-ETS1-2  Develop a simple sketch, drawing, or physical model to illustrate how the shape of an object helps it function as needed to solve a given problem.
• 3-5-ETS1-3   Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled, and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

You could begin your lesson by reading aloud One Hot Summer Day by Nina Crews.  This picture book with photograph illustrations tells the story of one young girl’s hot summer day. The book provides a hook to get students thinking about hot weather and ways to stay cool.

As you are reading the text, you could have your students keep track of the strategies people use to stay cool.  Then after reading, you could have students add their own ideas and strategies to the list.

The Challenge:

The book provides a nice lead to the challenge of designing a solution to keep an ice cube cool.  If you aren’t familiar with this challenge, students are asked to engineer a structure that will keep an ice cube from melting for the longest time.

Constraint Considerations:

You’ll want to consider your time constraints when designing your lesson.  Testing your ice cubes will obviously proceed more quickly outside on a hot summer day, but don’t feel that you have to wait for nice weather to enjoy this engineering challenge. – Any ice cube outside of a freezer will melt eventually!

Materials are always a constraint to consider.  For this challenge in particular, the more materials you can provide your students with, the better.  Narrowing their materials narrows their design options and increases the chances their solutions will all look similar.

When doing this challenge with my sons, I did not discuss the role shade plays in keeping things cool.  The picture book mentions shade, and certainly, my boys have had experience keeping cool in the summer by staying in the shade.  But by explicitly discussing shade, I felt I would be pointing them in a design direction that I would rather have them discover independently.  Like I shared with the bridge challenge in the last post, the less direct information you provide upfront, the better.  We want students to be engaging in the activity as engineers who are tasked with figuring out a solution.

Other Considerations:

Decide ahead of time how you will keep track of how long the ice cube takes to melt.  Does each team have a stopwatch?  Is there one master stopwatch, and teams call out when their ice cube has melted and their time is recorded?  You may even need to discuss what it will look like when their ice cube is fully melted.  Be sure to have a control ice cube that is not protected by any insulation.

Post Test Activities:

Once you have run your first test, have the students compare their results to the control cube and each other.  You may want to create a class graph (or individual graphs) of the data to help with comparing.  Ask your students to discuss which designs worked the best and to provide evidence for their claims. You could allow students to hypothesize why they believe some designs worked better than others and then have the opportunity to design an investigation to test their theories.  This might include revising their designs, creating new designs, and/or collaborating between groups. Some students may also want to do some independent research at this point about how different materials and colors reflect and absorb heat.  And some students may come up with new questions to investigate.  For example, “Is shade a larger factor in keeping an ice cube cool outside than it is inside?”

By continuing the discussion and engineering beyond the first test, you encourage your students to do what “real” engineers do.  Testing and making modifications is an integral part of real-world problem solving, and we want to be sure we don’t deprive our students of that experience in our classrooms.  The more we can show students early in their careers that failure and revision are a part of the learning process, the more they expect and embrace it in the future.

If you are a StarrMatica Texts:  Science Your Way subscriber, you can check out the engineering and energy informational texts below.  Remember, each 1st – 5th grade text has multiple reading levels, so all of your students can read the same content independently.  I recommend having students read the kindergarten texts after they have built their structures.  Used this way, the texts help students learn vocabulary and background information they can use to explain what they have learned on their own. You could use the 3rd-5th grade engineering texts either before or after your designs.  If you choose to use them before, students could model their tests after the engineering steps discussed in the text.  If you decide to use them after, students could compare their tests to those in the texts.

• Kindergarten: Stay in the Shade and Keeping Cool
• 3rd-5th Engineering: Watering Your Garden on Vacation
• 3rd-5th Engineering: Two Ways to Solve a Problem
• 3rd-5th Engineering: Testing Prototypes

Not a subscriber?  Click here for a free trial to access the texts above.

Structure and function and cause and effect are the main crosscutting concepts that fit well with this challenge.

And students are using nearly all of the science and engineering practices.  They are developing and using models as they construct their designs.  Students are planning and carrying out investigations to test how long it takes for the ice cube to melt.  They are constructing explanations and designing solutions when determining why some designs worked better than others.  When they share their designs with peers and discuss the trial results, they obtain, evaluate, and communicate information.  When creating graphs and reviewing the trial results, they analyze and interpret data and use mathematics and computational thinking

As a fun extension, you could bring in different products designed by real-life engineers to keep ice from melting.  Run your own tests to see which coolers, thermoses, and tumblers you would recommend to consumers!

Welcome to our third engineering challenge post to help you keep your students engaged the last few weeks of school.  (You can find the first two challenges here and here.)

As we shared in the last posts, it is essential to note that these posts are not intended to provide an entire NGSS-aligned lesson plan.  My goal is to share resources you can use to design a lesson that meets your specific classroom needs.

Our third challenge is:  The Bridge Building Challenge paired with Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing by April Jones Prince or Twenty-One Elephants by Phil Bildner.

Let me emphasize at the outset that this challenge could go in a myriad of different directions depending on your materials and time constraints.  There are many different ways for students to construct their bridges, so I will provide you with some general guidelines and lots of excellent links and ideas.

You could begin your lesson by reading aloud Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing by April Jones Prince.  This beautifully illustrated picture book tells the true story of P.T. Barnum’s stunt to instill confidence in the strength of the Brooklyn Bridge by having his 21 elephants cross it. It is brief and to the point and provides all of the “hook” you need to lead into your bridge-building challenge.

There is another version of this same true story that is told from a young girl’s viewpoint.  It is titled:  Twenty-One Elephants by Phil Bildner. This second version adds more detail to the story, has more straightforward prose, and gives specific arguments people may have made for why they believed the bridge wasn’t sound.  Both texts are good choices.

The book’s front cover by April Jones Prince is a classic opportunity for your students to break out their predicting skills.  Show the cover to your students and ask: What do you notice?  What do you wonder? Why do you think this image is on the cover of the book?

If you use the Phil Bildner version, the text is an excellent opportunity to discuss opinions versus facts and evidence. As a class, you can track the reasons (opinions) that people think the bridge isn’t safe and how the little girl refutes each claim with facts and evidence.  What a great connection to the Science and Engineering Practice of Engaging in Argument from Evidence!

Whichever book you choose to read, you can discuss with your class why they think P.T. Barnum decided to stage such an elaborate test of the bridge.  Why do you think he believed it was safe?  What does the text say about one person’s ability to make a difference?

The Challenge:

Challenge your students to design a bridge that will hold a specific amount of weight you determine.  That weight could be in a certain number of coins, counting cubes, crayons, or pretty much anything that will fit on their bridges!  I highly recommend building your own bridge without the students around and testing what weight makes sense for your constraints.  Too much weight and it will be difficult for the students to be successful.  Not enough weight, and even the most shakily constructed bridges will stand.  (Check out this popsicle stick bridge that held 100 pounds!

You’ll want to carefully consider your time and materials constraints before beginning the project.  Also, think about other constraints, such as whether the bridge needs to be a certain length.  I love this challenge because it can be adapted to many age levels and completed with many different materials.  You could have kindergarteners building with popsicle sticks and paper cups or fifth graders constructing with straws and tape.  Here are a few blog posts that share different materials you could use for your bridge construction:

• This post shares a unique construction using an egg carton, markers, rubber bands, and a ruler.
• This post uses toilet paper rolls, paper cups, and popsicle sticks.
• This post uses straws and tape.
• This post uses paper and tape.

I share these posts to show some examples of bridges constructed using different materials; however, there are several issues to keep in mind when viewing the posts above.  First, the most important part of this challenge is not to provide your students with templates and examples for what to create. Do not show them a photograph, a model you built, or a template. Your job is to provide your students the supplies and the constraints and then to step back and let them figure out what to build.  I can’t stress this enough – your only job is to facilitate by asking questions.  And if your students’ bridges end up looking like cookie-cutter copies of each other, you have likely given them too much information upfront and turned your engineering challenge into a craft.  (Nothing against crafts, but they just shouldn’t be mistaken for engineering challenges!)

It is also a mistake to give your students too much information at the beginning of the challenge.  Resist the temptation to do a mini-lesson about different types of bridges and/or how to create a structurally sound bridge.  We want students to be engaged in the activity as engineers who are tasked with figuring out a solution.  Once the students have had the opportunity to construct their first structures, come together as a class and discuss what worked well and what didn’t.  At this point, you could challenge students to build bridges that will hold even greater weights.  And you can start to bring in resources for students to learn how their bridges can be made more structurally sound.

Bridges! Amazing Structures to Design, Build & Test by Carol A Johmann and Elizabeth J. Rieth is a fantastic resource to share with students during this process.  The book discusses the process of building a bridge, different bridge engineering concepts, and the structure of different types of bridges.  This book should be a resource for students to learn concepts to apply to their own designs.  Please resist the temptation to use this book at the beginning of your lesson, or it may be difficult for your students to create bridges that aren’t copies of bridge construction ideas suggested in the book.  Once your students have done some research, have them modify and test their designs using the knowledge they have gained.

Bridges Are To Cross by Philemon Sturges and This Bridge Will Not Be Gray by Dave Eggers.  Bridges Are To Cross is a beautiful compilation of illustrations of bridges around the world paired with a brief explanation of why they were built.  There are many great opportunities in the text to have conversations about structure and function.

Don’t be deterred by the thickness of This Bridge Will Not Be Gray! The pages aren’t textually dense, and the way the story is told is very engaging.  (Even my four-year-old loved listening to it!)  The text is a simple introduction to the bridge-building process and gives a unique window into how and why specific decisions are made during construction.

Next Generation Science Standards Connections:

These engineering performance expectations fit well with this challenge:

• K-2-ETS1-2     Develop a simple sketch, drawing, or physical model to illustrate how the shape of an object helps it function as needed to solve a given problem.
• 3-5-ETS1-3     Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled, and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

This challenge also makes connections with these grade-level PEs:

• 3-PS2-1     Plan and investigate to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object.
• 5-PS2-1     Support an argument that the gravitational force exerted by Earth on objects is directed down.

If you are a StarrMatica Texts:  Science Your Way subscriber, you can check out the engineering and forces and motion informational texts below.  Remember, each 1st – 5th grade text has multiple reading levels, so all of your students can read the same content independently.  I recommend having students use these text resources after they have designed and built their bridges.  Used this way, the texts help students learn vocabulary and background information they can use to explain what they have learned on their own.

• 5th Grade: Gravity’s Forceful Nature
• 3rd Grade: May The Force Be With You
• 3rd-5th Engineering: Watering Your Garden on Vacation
• 3rd-5th Engineering: Two Ways to Solve a Problem
• 3rd-5th Engineering: Testing Prototypes
• K-2nd  Engineering: All About Bridges
• K-2nd  Engineering: Be The Engineer

Not a subscriber?  Click here for a free trial to access the texts above.

Structure and function is the central crosscutting concept that fits well with this challenge.

And students are using nearly all of the science and engineering practices.  They are developing and using models as they construct their bridges.  Students are planning and carrying out investigations as they test the amount of weight their bridge can hold.  They construct explanations and design solutions when determining why a bridge has failed and deciding how to fix it.  When they share their structures with peers, they are obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.  There are many possibilities for incorporating analyzing and interpreting data in upper elementary and using mathematics and computational thinking.  For example, if a bridge with a single layer of popsicle sticks can hold X amount of weight, how much weight should a double layer of popsicle sticks be able to hold?  Why?

Bottom line:  Step out of the way and have fun seeing what bridge designs your students can construct!