Friday, December 21, 2018

Engineering Challenge - STEAM Program

After my big, messy Paleontology program last month, I needed to do something a little simpler, with little to no preparation or clean-up required this month! So I decided it was time for this deceptively simple, yet challenging engineering activity that I saw on a homeschooling mom's blog,"Frugal Fun for Boys & Girls" a couple of years ago and have been waiting for the opportunity to try.

This activity uses everyday items (craft sticks, clothespins, and binder clamps) as unconventional building materials, requiring the kids to experiment, problem-solve, and think outside the box more so than traditional building materials like Legos, Magna-tiles, etc. The original blogger did several challenges, but she just had 3 kids and presumably more than an hour, so I limited it to two: building a bridge or platform that could hold at least one book, and building the tallest structure possible.

Recommended Ages: 8-13 (I had ages 5-10, but it was too challenging for some)

Time: 1 hour (for 2 challenges)

Budget: $28 ($45 with recommended amounts; all supplies are reusable)

Number: 10 (would easily work for larger numbers with teams and/or more materials)


  • 500 Jumbo craft sticks (350-400 would be sufficient)
  • 200 Wooden clothespins (I only had 100, and that was not enough)
  • 150 3/4" Binder clamps (I had 100 1/2" clamps, and they were too small, and not enough)
  • Rubber bands (for bundling sticks)
  • sample cups/small zip-lock bags (for dividing clamps & clothespins)

  1. Divided craft sticks into bundles of 25 with rubber bands.
  2. Divided clamps into sets of 10 (recommend 15) in disposable sample cups.
  3. Divided clothespins into sets of 10 (recommend 20); they were attached to cardboard, so I just left them that way.
Challenge #1 - Strength
  1. Each participant was given 2 bundles of craft sticks, a set of clothespins, and a set of binder clamps, and shown a few pictures to give them ideas of how the materials could be put together to help them get started.
  2. They were instructed to used these materials in any way they they wished to construct a bridge or platform that was large enough and strong enough to hold at least one book in 15 minutes. [I had several sizes, but stuck with 3 small hardbound intermediate chapter books].
  3. Fifteen minutes was not enough time for most, so gave an additional 5 minutes.
  4. Began testing as they finished, by placing one book at a time, and going up to 3.

Challenge #2 - Height 
  1. For this challenge, I had them combine into teams of 2, and pool materials.
  2. I instructed them to work together, making sure both people were getting to contribute ideas and build, and see how tall a structure they could build. I also instructed the adults to please step back and let the kids figure it out and only provide minimal assistance.
  3. I initially gave 20 minutes, but just let them go until the end of the program as some were struggling.
  4. No measuring was necessary.

How It Went

Everyone was able to build a structure that supported at least one book, and a few could support 2 books, and two could support 3 or more (we only tested with 3), with significant parental assistance for most. However, only 3 of the 5 groups were able to build a structure with any significant height. I did find that I had more craft sticks than needed, but not quite enough clothespins or binder clips (I have included both actual and recommended amounts of each in the "Materials" section).

This proved to be far more challenging for this group of kids than I expected. I really didn't think it was that hard, but most of them were completely daunted by having materials that didn't have an obvious, straightforward way of building. Most of them heavily relied on adult assistance, not just in building, but in design as well. Some also got very easily frustrated, and one even cried.

Trying to get them to work in teams did not go well at all. I had really hoped that by working together they would have more success, but I noticed in every single pair either one person did everything while the other just watched, or they each did their own thing instead of working together on one structure. I also noticed that trying to get the adults to step back and let the kids take the lead did not work, either.  

In retrospect, I should have started of with just having them free-build, and leading them in building different modules so that they could get the hang of ways to combine the materials before doing the challenges. Also, with the younger crowd I'm getting it is probably not realistic to expect the kids to be able to work together effectively, and I should just approach it as an opportunity for kids and their caregivers to work together, and focus on modeling how the adults can assist without just doing it for the kids, and how to encourage the kids to problem-solve.

There was one participant that really excelled once he got the hang of it from looking at the examples. He ended up building a tower that was about 3 feet tall before it collapsed. I was really surprised the other kids didn't observe what was working for others and try to learn from that. 

I still like this activity, but I would not recommend it for the younger ages I tend to get. Though the program is supposed to be for ages 5-10, and I was hoping to get more 8-10 year olds, the reality is that is that I mostly get ages 5-8, and I'm still struggling to get things simple enough for them sometimes. This activity would probably be best for the tween age group, 10-13.

But, even though some found it too challenging, most did not seem to get overly frustrated, and one of the ones that struggled the most still said he wanted to come back for next month's program.

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