Engineering, math activity that does so much more

Notecard Tower Challenge

One of my favorite iSchool activities accomplishes so much – from building confidence to using math in real-world way: our Notecard Tower Challenge.  I act as the Town Mayor and say that I want to invest in the tallest structure I can get, but with the best value for the money.  Every student is challenged to build a prototype tower, and then we do a Benefit-Cost Analysis to determine which one I should invest in. Each student has a budget ($6 to $10). I “charge” them for the raw materials – $1 for 10 notecards, $1 per foot of tape, and $1 for 2 paper clips (which are made from a nonrenewable resource, of course). Sometimes I give them 10 free cards for free to get started.  They are allowed to use scissors and do whatever they like to the cards.


The towers must hold up a certain amount of weight, usually foam blocks. The blocks don’t have to be on the roof, but they cannot be on the ground floor, and I bring in many different sizes of blocks and simply insist that the total weight must equal that of a 2-3 full blocks.  (This is a simple geometry/math add-on, as 1 large block is the equivalent of 4 small cubes, 2 small rectangles, 2 triangles, or 1 block with a hole plus 1 small cylinder).  This is another area where kids can think-out-of-the-box (sometimes with prompting), because they naturally gravitate towards trying to get the two largest blocks on the top of the tower.  When they realize they can mix and match shapes and put them almost anywhere in their structure, their world opens up a bit more; you can see the glimmer of excitement when they realize they can be even more creative.

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I set up a chart with their names to help them track their purchases and then set them free to build. Part of the exercise is working with kids to track the amount they’ve spent and figure out what they have left – and what their options are for spending that money.  However, I also stress that as the Mayor, I want it to be as tall and cheap as possible! In one class this turned into an impromptu civics lesson on why there are such things as taxes and limits.


When the time is up – or when they have used up their budget or otherwise finished building their structure, we measure it (cm!) and then divide by the total cost. The structure with the largest Benefit/Cost ratio is the “winner.” For some children the competition is a great motivator, usually encouraging them to compete with themselves to improve their own ratio by moving around pieces to make it taller without increasing the cost (one student moved pieces around and went from 12 cm to 35 cm).

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This activity does so much:

– Students think about engineering principles, such as what shapes to use to make a sturdy base and build tall
– They use addition, subtraction, fractions, and a chart for tracking

– It builds confidence, especially when they see their structure start to rise (some may need a bit of help getting to this point)
– It is open-ended and allows for creativity – there are no limits on the shape and design of their structure
– It encourages out-of-the-box thinking with the open-ended design and multiple possibilities
– It models a real-world situation (cost-benefit ratios, budgets, and firms competing with prototypes)
– Students can work in whatever form is comfortable for them (on the floor, at a table, alone, or in partnership with others, etc.)
– It’s fun!

Building Blind Communication Activity

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This activity was also easy to combine with one of iSchool’s Social and Emotional Life Skills (SEL) lessons.  Our Building Blind activity teaches communication skills, this time using words only, without showing each other what to do.  I talk about the importance of writing methods in Science, and how scientific experiments can only stand the test of time if they can be repeated and if their written methods can be understood and repeated exactly.  In the Building Blind activity, students work in pairs, taking turns talking each other through steps.  To link to the Notecard Tower Challenge, I gave students a notecard, 3 matching paper clips, scissors, and matching markers. The first student talked the second student through the steps for changing the card (while doing it him/herself) and then they compared their results.  We discussed their notecards and discussed what did or did not work before switching so that the second student could lead.  Students learned quickly about the importance of speaking clearly and slowly, using specific, descriptive words, asking questions, and listening intently.  As with most iSchool activities, it allows for individual creativity.


Interested in these types of experiences for your children? Register for our Winter Break Camp!