- 250 straws
- 50 balloons (x2)
- 100 BBQ skewers
- spaghetti (1 pack per four kids)
- marshmallows (1 pack per four kids, no eating until the end)
- Make a tower from spaghetti and marshmallows.
- ExpeRiment with the construction of your tower to find out which shapes are best for building with.
- Learn why some shapes are more stable than others when you build a tower.
I had a vague idea of how things would go. Some of it was right; a lot of it wasn’t. The kids had a great time and, I think, learnt a little bit too. We started by talking about buildings, then I challenged them to make shapes with the marshmallows and pasta. Several of the kids – aged 5 or 6 – enjoyed this so much it was hard to get them to move on. The next step was to try making something to stand up. Before too long we were able to lead them to the idea that squares fell over. A couple of better examples showed that triangles worked well, and soon there were many weird and wonderful structures taking shape.
About twenty minutes from the end I asked them to pause and showed a few pictures on the IWB of buildings. The kids were very excited to point out the triangles on the Eiffel Tower and the Forth Bridge. They were not, however, able to translate these to very regular shapes in their own building. There was a lot of discussion about whether we should test the buildings by pushing from the side or above – an interesting approach would be to add a fan to simulate wind. Perhaps with older students! Most of them were happy to explain that the buildings needed a strong shape as well as a strong material, which I was pleased with.
Next time – because we’ll be repeating the cycle each half-term with another group of pupils – I’ll aim for a clearer structure from the beginning. It was harder to get them back on track than I expected. I’m used to being able to ‘steer’ consensus in secondary, but the kids listened, nodded, then carried on doing exactly what they were doing before I’d spoken.
- Picture of a building (if the IWB is working and the blinds are drawn).
- Start with flat shapes (set time limit)
- What will happen when we stand them up?
- Try it out, then ask what the best shape is and how we know (time limit).
- What shapes are strong? (triangles are good, squares and more sides can be deformed.)
- What makes a tower ‘the best’? (tall, withstands load, withstands force from side?)
- Allow time to build the ‘best’ tower
Things to track more carefully:
- different views of ‘scientist’ and engineer’
- words used eg strong, bendy
There, I said it. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? (Bonus points to anyone who gets the reference, answer in the comments.)
This doesn’t make me a character in The Big Bang Theory, which I see as undemanding (rather sexist) comedy rather than a life blueprint. It doesn’t make me a genius. I’m neither a scientist nor an engineer. It makes me a person who recognises a fact about the world that I’d probably take for granted, if I didn’t have to make it explicit in a daily basis for my students.
Science is cool.
Not just because it leads to great stuff. Although it does. Not just because it involves big explosions. Ditto. And not just because it’s useful (candidate for this year’s understatement award) when facing crises like climate change, water scarcity and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Science is cool because it’s arguably the best way to answer one of the first abstract questions human beings ask.
Yes, I know that often the explanation of cause and effect involves people and their motives as well as scientific principles. Yes, I know that sometimes we’re answering the question in terms of justifying a choice rather than explaining how something works. But in its simplest possible incarnation, science is about describing how the world works and suggesting a reason for it. Magic and religion may have offered the first explanations, but science offered the first that actually worked. And still does. So science is cool, and thinking scientifically is useful to everyone, and lots of people think they can’t do it.