This semester in STEM class as one of our first lessons, I’m using the following “Group Building Design Challenge” to get my 4th and 5th grade students collaborating, designing, communicating, and creatively constructing in groups. This lesson idea originally came from an Oklahoma A+Schools workshop my wife, Shelly Fryer (@sfryer) attended, and I modified with Amy Loeffelholz (@AmyLoeffelholz) during our June 2014 STEM Seeds PD Camp for teachers. Amy also used this last semester with her 4th and 5th grade STEM students.

These are some of the main learning goals for the lesson. One other goal not listed here is practicing oral communication skills and elaboration. It’s very challenging (and good) for many of my students to be the group “engineer” who describes the building/object they need to construct to teammates who haven’t seen it themselves.

Here’s the lesson in a nutshell: In another room or hidden space, build a small structure using blocks, lincoln logs, or other building materials DIFFERENT than those your students will use. Divide students into groups of 4. Assign 4 different roles to students, which include limitations on which hands they can use and whether or not they can talk. Allow 1 student per group to look at the pre-constructed structure for 90 seconds. If possible (if you can go into another room/space away from other students) discuss the characteristics of the building with them. Provide each group with building supplies, and invite them to organize their supplies while 1 student is seeing the example project / model. Give students five minutes to build in their defined roles. After 5 minutes, have students switch roles, and the students who are allowed to see the example project / model have 60 seconds to go look at it and discuss it. Repeat this process until all students have had each job role. At the end, discuss:

- What part of the building challenge was most difficult? Why?
- How was patience important in this activity?
- Who did the best job explaining to others what to build? What did they say?

Here are descriptions for the 4 different job roles I used in this activity: Engineer, Left Handed Builder, Right Handed Builder, and Architect. Each role has specific abilities and limitations, which are key for the learning goals of this activity.

To help students select job roles, I cut blank paper into squares and wrote the first letters “E, L, R and A” on them, and paperclipped each set of 4 together. When we started the lesson, each group got a set and figured out how to “fairly” draw or select initial jobs.

*Update 2/27/2015: My wife, Shelly, created much nicer printed squares which can be cut out and shuffled/passed out for each group. This document is available as a PDF.*

This is the “model” build which I used the second day of this lesson. There is not anything really special about this design, other than the fact that it has specific characteristics which students can identify and copy. For this example, these include a 3 walled structure with two windows on opposite sides, a door at the entrance, an archway over the door, no roof, and an open back to the building. I asked students what kind of a building they thought it would be if it had a roof. Answers from students included a garage, a car wash, a parking place for a spaceship, a church (the archway inspired that answer I think) and a roadside picnic area cabin. I suggested it could be a “carport,” that wasn’t a term my kids came up with on their own.

I strongly recommend you do NOT make this model build too complicated. One of the simple things which challenges kids and they way they think is that they are having to reconstruct this model with DIFFERENT materials. If possible, it can be beneficial to give different groups different kinds of materials to build their object. The difference in building materials between the model and the supplies provided to student groups naturally creates cognitive dissonance for students. This can be very good for helping students think differently and creatively about problem solving. They have to think “out of the box,” they are not simply copying another model verbatim. This requires some creativity and divergent thinking.

This was the model I used for students the first day I taught this lesson, and it turned out to be TOO COMPLICATED. Students got sidetracked by the imperfect roof and the holes in the roof. Most also didn’t have enough time, in our 50 minute lesson, to construct a roof. It was enough of a challenge to just construct the walls of the simpler structure.

The following photo was one of my favorites from our lesson. A student who was supposed to just use ONE hand and NOT talk forgot and started talking! Students are challenged by these limits on the hands they can use and whether or not they can talk, and often enjoy “policing” each other appropriately and making sure everyone in their group is following the rules!

If time permits, here are some modifications and additional activities you can try for this lesson.

- Take photos during the building time, and share those photos with students at the end.
- Upload photos to a Flickr set students can access, and teach them to write reflective blog posts about this lesson using one of the photos afterwards.
- Use a timer on your classroom projector/interactive whiteboard and give students 5 minutes for each building phase. Then rotate jobs. I had students rotate “clockwise,” but had to teach students what this meant and practice by pointing left (clockwise) and right (counter-clockwise) before actually rotating. Then new Engineers can visit the room with the hidden model structure, and everyone has a new building role with abilities/limitations.

This can potentially be an engaging and valuable lesson, and a fun lesson for students. I’m going to use it as a springboard for our first lessons about “interactive writing” this semester as students learn to post text and images to their class KidBlogs.