Group Building Design Challenge

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:

  1. What part of the building challenge was most difficult? Why?
  2. How was patience important in this activity?
  3. 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.

  1. Take photos during the building time, and share those photos with students at the end.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


STEMseeds8: Lesson Ideas with Bethany Ligon

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7th grade Arizona science teacher Bethany Ligon joined Amy Loeffelholz and Wesley Fryer on Saturday, November 22, 2014, for an hour-long Google Hang Out for STEMseeds discussing STEM lesson ideas including engineering design challenges. Bethany uses a variety of engineering design challenges she has found via Google, on Pinterest, and elsewhere to help students develop their problem solving, creativity, and collaboration skills. In the Google Hang Out, Bethany shared that some of her students ask “When are we going to play again?” when asking about the engineering design challenges. She has started posting about these activities on her blog, “Standing Out In The Middle.” Her students love these activities and do not necessarily see them as part of “doing school” or “learning,” yet there are a rich set of skills they develop through these activities. Check our shownotes for this episode for links to Bethany’s recent Engineering Design Challenge posts as well as other referenced links/resources from the show. The archived video from this episode is available via YouTube, and an audio-only version is available as well. Please follow @STEMseeds on Twitter to stay up to date about upcoming shows! Also follow Bethany Ligon (@ajsciencegal), Amy Loeffelholz (@AmyLoeffelholz) and Wesley Fryer (@wfryer) on Twitter.

Show Notes:

  1. Bethany Ligon on Twitter: @ajsciencegal
  2. Bethany Ligon’s professional blog: Out Standing in the Middle
  3. Design Challenge: Pipe Cleaner Structures (by Bethany Ligon)
  4. Engineering Design Challenge: Straw Structures #1 (by Bethany Ligon)
  5. Lunar Phases Interactive from McGraw Hill (not the same site Bethany mentions in the show, but a cool lunar online interactive none-the-less)
  6. PBS Kids Design Squad (lots of good design challenge ideas)
  7. Engineering GoForIt! – @egfi (excellent connections to Engineering careers)
  8. Science Buddies: Hands-on Science Resources for Home and School
  9. Nepris (great website for videoconferencing with STEM industry professionals)
  10. Video: Playground Design Finalists at Lakeview Elementary School in Yukon, Oklahoma
  11. Nov 1, 2014 Classroom 2.0 Webinar: “Technology Integration in a Junior High School” (Bethany Ligon was one of the presenters in this FANTASTIC show)
  12. YouTube Playlist: Enhanced eBooks on the “Minecraft Geometry Challenge” (47 and counting created by 4th and 5th graders at Independence Elementary in Yukon Public Schools, eBooks exported as videos instead of ePUBs)
  13. Amy Loeffelholz on Twitter: @AmyLoeffelholz
  14. Amy’s grade 4-5 classroom on Twitter: @lesstem
  15. Wes Fryer on Twitter: @wfryer
  16. Wes’ grade 4-5 classroom on Twitter: @iesSTEM
  17. STEMseeds on Twitter: @stemseeds

The MP3 audio version of this show was created by downloading the recorded Google Hangout video with, saving the converted audio file as a 32 kbps MP3 file. The mp3 audio file is hosted on AmazonS3 (the most affordable/cheap podcast host available, literally this costs a few pennies per month) and shared on this WordPress self-hosted blog with the free PodLove Podcast Publisher plugin.