STEM in Action: The Tower Challenge

by | Nov 24, 2015

By John Anderson

Triangles are used constantly during the construction process. If you Google “roof truss”, you will find site after site offering engineered roof trusses for building construction. All the trusses have one thing in common; they are made entirely of triangles that offer superior structural support. The same is true of floor trusses.

In late October, the grade five students at Swanson Road Intermediate School were educated about triangles and their usefulness in construction as part of the school’s ongoing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program. After gaining some construction understanding and reviewing the creative process, it was time to roll up their sleeves and test out their ideas.

The process has six steps: Ask – What is the problem?; Imagine – What are the possibilities?; Plan – What materials are needed?; Create – Have I followed the plan?; Communicate – Is the problem solved?; and Improve – What will make it better?

In the grade five classroom taught by Kristin Forgues, students had just been assigned the grade 5 challenge when I arrived. Each of four teams was given 50 index cards and told to build the tallest structure they could devise. They could bend or tear the index cards but could not use glue or tape.


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All the teams quickly took advantage of triangles and began the build. There was enough space between the groups to hopefully avoid an errant bump which would send the tower sailing to the ground. Gravity was a separate challenge altogether since only the best designs had both height and longevity.

If one team was not being successful, they eyed a neighboring project and picked up a point or two. Engineering is built on proven principles, and in grade five, a glance across the room would certainly reveal what is proven in this small setting.

In the end, Mrs. Forgues reported that Team Blue won the competition in her room. They built their 34.5” structure in the first 16 minutes and it stayed standing for the duration. Team Red was second with 31.5”. Team Green never gave up after several collapses and ended with a 30” tower. Team Yellow suffered a collapse with 5 minutes left on the clock, but they still assembled a 13” tower.

The SWIS champion was from Mrs. Villatoro’s class – “The Constructors” built a 42” tower. Second place was garnered by “Sami’s Group” from Mrs. Gomez’s class with a 40” tower, and third was earned by “Wikawikapedia” with a 38” structure in Mrs. Lundy’s class.

Congratulations to all these students and their dedicated teachers. This is truly constructive education.