Our second Engineering Challenge for school-aged children was to build towers out of playing cards that could hold the weight of a book. After our first engineering challenge, I realized that the wide range of ages and abilities meant that some of the children were going to succeed immediately, while other would struggle. Since I wanted everyone to be both ultimately successful but also challenged, I decided to create multiple challenge levels. Everyone would start off with the same challenge, where I purposefully set the bar fairly low. Once that challenge had been met, I would give that individual a second, more difficult challenge. This strategy seemed to work well for us. Everyone managed to complete at least the first level, and thus walk away feeling confident and capable. Most of the children were engaged by the extra levels of challenge and even started creating their own personal challenges.
Traditionally this project is done with index cards, but the library had a huge supply of card catalog-ready marc record cards on hand, so I used those instead. Before we started, we talked about all the different ways we could possibly use the cards to build with, including classic card towers, folding, rolling the cards up, and cutting the cards and inserting the net card into the slot. We also talked about what makes a structure stable. The Engineering Adventures program put out by the Boston Museum of Science has a fabulous (and free!) unit about building, and I borrowed from some of their ideas for the pre-building discussion questions.
Finally, I just handed out the cards and let the students start building. I encouraged parents to either help their child, or build their own tower. Modeling good engineering attitudes (such as failure means you’re one step closer to making it better) is important. The older children also got a kick out of competing with their parents. Since the children were more willing to think outside the box and take risks with their non-traditional building techniques, they were often more successful than the adults. There were a few parents with the proper backgrounds to build some really amazing structures, and seeing the incredible success of those structures to withstand stress was an inspiration to many.
As trial and error made the structures more and more stable, the students started issuing their own wilder and wilder challenges. I had brought a stack of identical books that I use for my lapsit program so that we could test more than one tower at a time, yet always use the same book. My extra levels of challenge tended to focus on the height of the tower, but the children were just as, if not more, interested in challenging themselves to hold more weight, including the entire stack of books. Eventually they made me go and get a dictionary! One of the younger boys had brought his stuffed dog, and the dog was incorporated into the challenge by just about everyone. This was actually more difficult than it would seem, since the stuffed animal was difficult to balance properly on the tower.