I was originally inspired by this write up of Hurricane Towers, which was based on a NASA lesson plan. After reading through all of the NASA information, I decided that my target audience was a little too wide in age to have a lot of rules, so I simplified the activity somewhat. (Generally at these programs my students will range from about five to twelve, with even younger siblings often “helping”.) I like to give multiple levels of challenge during my engineering activities, that way every child walks away from the program having been successful at completing at least one level, yet more sophisticated students are still challenged. The first level of challenge for this project was to construct a tower in which the tennis ball was not touching the ground – defined as my being able to see air between the tennis ball and the ground. The students were given tape, pipe cleaners, paper plates, straws, popsicle sticks, yarn, and paper clips to work with. Some students made actual towers, others had barely the width of a straw between the ball and the table. One team of siblings decided to use the edge of the stage, and since I like to encourage creative thinking, I declared that since the only rule was that it had to have air space, I didn’t mind. All were deemed successful.
The next level of challenge was to have the tower survive a “hurricane” – otherwise known as my high-powered fan. I had done a test run of this activity a few days before with my homeschooling group and discovered that when I tried to use my fan to test the towers, every piece of building equipment on the table was blown around – not to mention the projects that other children were working on. Since I like to encourage the children to frequently test their projects to see if they need any design changes, that quickly became a problem. To try to overcome this, I had the students build their towers on top of paper plates that could then be moved to a separate testing space. However, I should have specified they use upside down paper plates, because the raised edge of the plates caught the wind from the fan and sent the projects flying. This was easily fixed by taping the edge of the paper plate to the table, but was an extra added step.
All of the students were able to successfully build towers that withstood the fan, and with surprising ease. The towers were all very inventive. I love to see all the creative ways that the children come up with to solve the initial problem. It’s especially interesting to me to watch the different age ranges work out the logistics. I think it’s fascinating that older children tend to put a significantly longer amount of time into the planning process, and want to perfect every little bit of the tower before testing it, while younger children are more likely to just go with gut instinct – and were just as often successful. I just wish I’d managed to get a picture of everyone’s tower. One group noticed that my large box of supplies that I’d used to carry the materials into the room had a box of marbles that I intend to use for a program later in the year, and they asked if they could use the marbles to weigh down their tower so that it wouldn’t blow away even without using tape to keep the paper plate on the table. I wanted to see what would happen, so I let them, and they were successful.