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techdirections August 2013 : Page 20

Middle School Design Challenge New Twist on Tower Construction By Martha Vanloon and Harry T. Roman harry661@verizon.net T HE two of us have teamed up to motivate students at Thomas A. Edison Middle School to think outside the box in ways that follow the outside-the-box think-ing of Edison himself, a local tech-nology hero. The school is close to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, so inspiration for invention is literally just about half a mile down the street. Here is a description of how Ms. V. and her students built some very interesting structures using simple materials like pipe clean-ers, plastics straws, and paper clips. The challenge, specifically, was to build a tower as tall as pos-sible that could support a golf ball that hung down from the tower at about 75% of the tower’s height. career in engineering. Each student had to prepare for the challenge by developing a plan and diagram for Each team had one standard class period to complete the challenge. Getting Underway! As teams began the activity, stu-dents exhibited a variety of reactions when they realized they were on their own and able to make their own decisions about how to solve the challenge. Some at first seemed to look for “the right answer,” only to learn quickly from Ms. V. and Harry that there are no right answers, just a design they are in charge of conceiving and carry-ing out. Students and teams that spent a fair amount of time thinking and planning beforehand generally had the most success and confidence in the challenge, which quickly taught students the importance of plan-Above, a narrow four-ning and organization. As sided base design usual with design chal-lenges such as this, there is often a good deal of Left, an unusual on-the-spot engineering circular base design and iterative thinking to and ball holder get the design to work. Students quickly figured out how he or she would approach the that sticking pipe cleaners inside of actual design using the assigned straws can significantly improve the materials. rigidity of a pipe cleaner, making it a Each class was then divided into strong structural element for a foun-teams of two or three students and dation for the tower. students received materials neces-Students also came to realize that sary for completion of the challenge. a triangular base had some interest-Five classes—more than 200 students ing virtues over a standard square in total—took part in the challenge. Left, a sturdy triangular base design Getting Ready for the Challenge Ms. V. prepared her stu-dents for the design chal-lenge by discussing how large structures are de-signed and built, showing students images of some of the great structures of the world. The students were already familiar with Harry, as he had visited the school a number of times to talk with the students about his many inventions and his Martha Vanloon teaches 6th grade, Thomas A. Edison Middle School, West Orange, NJ, and Harry Roman is a retired engineer and inventor. 20 tech directions X AUGUST 2013

New Twist on Tower Construction

Martha Vanloon & Harry T. Roman

<br /> Middle School Design Challenge<br /> <br /> THE two of us have teamed up to motivate students at Thomas A. Edison Middle School to think outside the box in ways that follow the outside-the-box thinking of Edison himself, a local technology hero. The school is close to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, so inspiration for invention is literally just about half a mile down the street.<br /> <br /> Here is a description of how Ms. V. and her students built some very interesting structures using simple materials like pipe cleaners, plastics straws, and paper clips. The challenge, specifically, was to build a tower as tall as possible that could support a golf ball that hung down from the tower at about 75% of the tower’s height.<br /> <br /> Getting Ready for the Challenge<br /> Ms. V. prepared her students for the design challenge by discussing how large structures are designed and built, showing students images of some of the great structures of the world. The students were already familiar with Harry, as he had visited the school a number of times to talk with the students about his many inventions and his career in engineering. Each student had to prepare for the challenge by developing a plan and diagram for how he or she would approach the actual design using the assigned materials.<br /> <br /> Each class was then divided into teams of two or three students and students received materials necessary for completion of the challenge. Five classes—more than 200 students in total—took part in the challenge. Each team had one standard class period to complete the challenge.<br /> <br /> Getting Underway!<br /> As teams began the activity, students exhibited a variety of reactions when they realized they were on their own and able to make their own decisions about how to solve the challenge. Some at first seemed to look for “the right answer,” only to learn quickly from Ms. V. and Harry that there are no right answers, just a design they are in charge of conceiving and carrying out.<br /> <br /> Students and teams that spent a fair amount of time thinking and planning beforehand generally had the most success and confidence in the challenge, which quickly taught students the importance of planning and organization. As usual with design challenges such as this, there is often a good deal of on-the-spot engineering and iterative thinking to get the design to work.<br /> <br /> Students quickly figured out that sticking pipe cleaners inside of straws can significantly improve the rigidity of a pipe cleaner, making it a strong structural element for a foundation for the tower.<br /> <br /> Students also came to realize that a triangular base had some interesting virtues over a standard square or quadrilateral base. Students who built four-sided bases learned that such structures generally needed some form of bracing to keep the structure from twisting or collapsing under the weight of the golf ball. Students displayed an interesting array of bracing techniques, and those who built their bases out of pipe cleaners only soon learned a lesson about building on weak foundations.<br /> <br /> Interestingly, many teams built a small tower first to show they could suspend the golf ball, and then they tried to increase the height of the tower to get the whole structure as tall as possible. This presented some interesting design problems as they now had to improvise a bottom section that could mate with the completed top section—a notion that was not always obvious to the exuberant students.<br /> <br /> One team worked on a design that drew its inspiration from the Eiffel Tower, and they did manage to achieve a nice height with their design. The tallest structures reached into the 50-65 cm height range, along with some interesting and artistic top creations by the students!<br /> <br /> Plans for the Future<br /> In the coming months, Ms. V. and Harry plan to conduct additional activities with the students, hoping to give them a look at how engineers conduct experiments, collect data, graph the results, and draw conclusions from what they discover.<br /> <br /> Martha Vanloon teaches 6th grade, Thomas A. Edison Middle School, West Orange, NJ, and Harry Roman is a retired engineer and inventor.

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