Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Great Wall of China Building Challenge - A Meek Moose Adventure in "Engineering" - by the seat of her pants

I've been wanting to learn all about S.T.E.M and S.T.E.A.M for awhile now.  I'm hoping to go to a conference this summer to get some training so I'm not just making this stuff up.

Our year ended with a unit on Ancient Egypt and Ancient China.  I usually always do a construction paper Great Wall project with them where they make one piece of the wall and we line it up end to end and see how far we can make it stretch in the hallway.

The individual pictures look like this:

I learned a lot doing this.  Like, kids don't really know how to use liquid glue anymore.  And frankly, glue sticks are sad.  They do not make good fireworks.  Only liquid glue can make good fireworks.  I need to do serious "How to Use Liquid Glue" lessons next year.

And some one-on-one tutoring on drawing bricks.  Still, the pictures are adorable.

But I wanted to take this up a notch. I wanted to try a little something engineery.  This was my basic idea:

Read The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy as a tie-in the the Great Wall of China.  Set out five stations of materials and ask the kids to make a representation of the Great Wall with whatever material they were given.  They should be able to make it from one end of the table to the other, and include towers.

So I went material hunting.  Originally, I was really wanting those big wooden blocks like you see in pre-schools.  But I ended up using the geoblocks I had on hand.  I had TONS of Legos from a yard sale find a couple of years ago.  I have a plethora of connecting cubes that the kids usually try to fashion all forms of weaponry out of, so I figured they should be able to handle making a wall.  I borrowed a set of Lincoln Logs from a Kindergarten teacher (and now want my own set). Then decided to have a "challenge" material. An homage, if you will, to that Food Network show Chopped!  where some poor guy always gets the box with nothing but Chicken-in-a-Biscuit crackers and a sea urchin and is told to create a dessert.  I pulled out my mass hoard of plastic straws and pipe cleaners.


 Geoblocks were a favorite for "tower building".  The kids showed their greatest creativity with this material.
 Lincoln Logs:

The lincoln logs were a favorite for just play.  The kids either hadn't been able to play with this material since Kindergarten, or hadn't ever played with it before.  It was interesting to me that most of them did not attempt to lay the logs together as the manufacturer's intention, but did try instead to really model the Great Wall.


 Legos were definitely the most time consuming material to use, but it offers greater possibilities.  This was the only material where the kids really gave the Great Wall the width that was appropriate.  As the rotations went on, they began to be more creative with adding details.

Connecting Cubes:

They built the length quickly with this material.  However, they never branched out into making it wider, and therefore the towers began to pull the wall over.  The first group was the only group to build up uniformly on one side for height.

The Challenge: Straws and Pipecleaners:

It turned out this material was "too challenging".  The first group didn't even manage to construct anything.  Although they were attempting to create bundles of straws tied together with pip cleaners.  It was the second group that discovered threading a pipe cleaner through the straw and then connecting them end to end.  This caught on with each consecutive group until the last group manager to create a fence perimeter around the entire carpet area.

They weren't much for trying to make towers though.

After each rotation we did measure each group's creation, and then vote on the "handsomest" Great Wall replica.  Blocks and Logs overall were winners each round.  Although the Legos did take it once.  In the first round, where no one was quite sure what to do- no one made it the entire length of the table.  But then, in proceeding rotations, everyone made sure they made the length before constructing towers.  Except for straws.  Each group just got caught up in a competition to make a longer straw chain than the group before.

In reflection- next year I want to put more emphasis on making it really sort of model the Great Wall as far as width goes.  I think I'll also add in a requirement for height in general and how many towers they should build.  Perhaps I'll make the overall length shorter, so they can concentrate on one masterful piece.

I might even make it a Lego only activity- but I'm not sure.  The kids really did enjoy going from material to material and trying out something new.  But I will need a different challenge materal I think.  The straws were neat, but the kids never really took off in being able to "construct" more than a chain.

I know I need to make this more engineery. The superlative alone gives me away as a big dork.  But, that's pretty much my feeling.  I'm just not sure how.  And I'd love some input on that.  I know I need to add something to the challenge aside from just "building" the model.  Perhaps the construction will need to be able to perform a task of some sort- like be able to hold up the weight of a thick text book, or be able to withstand a catapult attack.  Oooo- that just felt overwhelmingly fun. The Wall will have to hold up to an attack by the "Northern Huns".  Perfect.

I know I'll need to have them film themselves while they are constructing, and do an after interview on their reflections to put on their blog portfolio pages.  I think that will make the project even more robust.

Just remember- I made this up on a whim while they were making a mess with glitter.  Which makes me think a step further.  Aren't there apps for augmented reality or something?  Perhaps they could film their Wall, or take a picture of it or something, and then in the app make fire works explode above it in the night sky?  Too far fetched?

What do you think, my fellow engineers?  What do I need to make this better for next year?

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  1. I love this idea! I think it's awesome that you let them experiment with different materials. Definitely an activity that they will remember! :)

    Not Just Child's Play

  2. Your project is genius! I loved reading about it. I am a STEM Lab teacher and I can tell you this was a perfect challenge. The way you had kids rotate through the materials gave them all a chance to experience each. The feats of engineering they did with the straws is amazing. I think you will find that kids are very creative in their use of supplies and it is delightful to watch. How can you make this more STEM-like? I think it was perfect! If you are wanting more rigor, you might add a kind of lab sheet to it and require that kids write and draw about their thinking and planning. One thing I did this year that was a big hit was having a table of supplies, each of which had a cost. Kids had to choose their supplies and stay within a budget. They loved it! Great STEM activity on the Wall of China! Do you have a TpT store? I would market this!

    Teachers Are Terrific!

  3. Such a great project!! You could totally do a little Augmented Reality piece with this next year...I bet the kids LOVED trying out the different supplies you provided. Thanks for sharing :)
    The Techie Teacher

  4. Are you familiar with the Getcaughtengineering blog? Check it out and I promise you will be thrilled. I have gotten many freebies from them, and they also sell on TPT.

  5. I love all the ways you came up with you kids build! I will have to try them with my son!

  6. WOW - this is totally awesome - so many fantastic activities!

  7. Such great ways to explore the great wall! I really love having each student create their own construction paper picture and then unifying them all to make a great wall. Very cute!

  8. Because I totally believe in engaging kids through Story, I also love your idea of using the pics the kids take in some way. One suggestion would be to develop the theme of an attack on the Wall, and have them set up scenes, perhaps with purpose made figures, or using LEGO minifigs. Once they have the pics, they could use software like Comic Life to tell a story about the attack. Or they could use image editors to add captions to pics, and those images added to a collage, or printed out for your portfolios. I really love the idea of developing the STEM side with looking at medieval weapons say, and attempting to recreate them in model format. There are lots of trebuchets etc on the internet!