Our first engineering challenge this year had us thinking like ancient Egyptian architects. The challenge: Can you build a pyramid using only toothpicks and glue? The only requirements were that the base of the pyramid had to be square or rectangular and it had to be a minimum of 4 toothpicks in length or width.
Phase one was a math focus: Estimate how many toothpicks you think you will need.
Thinking about the number of edges in a large 3D shape was more difficult than the teachers had imagined. Students planned, plotted, counted, added, multiplied and drained their brains trying to figure out a number. Some students came up with reasonable estimates, but many were completely stymied. In the interest of working against perfectionism, once frustration levels peaked, we made educated guesses and moved on to the next phase. We talked a lot about how it is OK to make mistakes as part of the learning process, that struggling with a problem is the hard work that helps our brains grow, and that perseverance is the key to success. So, did we give up? No way!
In Phase 2, using just glue and toothpicks, most of the groups started building one big 3D structure. Every group struggled with getting the glue to hold, and almost every group had trouble with at least one edge or side collapsing, especially as they got longer/taller.
Once we noted the issues groups were having, we came together to share ideas, discussing what was working and what wasn't. Students from each group shared possible solutions. Then we tried again.
Some groups tried reinforcing their joints with small pieces of tissue paper, but sagging sides remained an issue.
Some students had a bit of success, but at the end of phase 2, none of the pyramids looked quite right. We watched some videos about how the pyramids may have actually been constructed, and noticed that they were built using big rectangular blocks piled on top of one another. We talked about three dimensional shapes and how we might stack them on top of each other to create a larger shape out of many smaller ones. We looked at a few pictures. Armed with a new approach, we moved on to Phase 3; this time using marshmallows instead of glue.
Pyramids quickly began to take shape, and some groups created assembly lines to speed up construction. Some groups struggled to add angled sides to rectangular prisms or cubes. One group discovered that many smaller pyramids stacked together created the correct angle, and very soon every group was on track.
It was a long process - three days of work spread out over several weeks - but in the end, every group experienced the satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult challenge.
Persevering through a difficult challenge -- now that's success!