Sandcastle Engineering Design

photo credit:  Sand Castle via photopin

Learning Objective: To design a sandcastle at the beach using the principles of engineering design.

Making a sandcastle or other object out of sand remains a favorite past time at the beach. These structures are design challenges as the materials, a mixture of sand and water, must be in just the right proportions to build a sturdy structure! Plus some imagination must go into forming the final product.

Using a typical (and very economical) beach bucket kit equipped with a shovel, etc. have kids go through the process of engineering design (Ask, Imagine, Plan, Design, Improve) as they construct their very own castle. 

Take pictures at different stages along the way to create a time lapse to show their progression. Ask them to reflect on the process with questions such as: What materials did you use to build your sandcastle and why? What worked? What did not? Did you change anything? If so, what? What would you do differently next time?

Finally, be sure to take a picture of the engineer next to his or her masterpiece!


Engineering is Elementary: The Engineering Design Process


Oh Ladybug


Learning Objective(s): To design a model of the ladybug life cycle and be able to describe the individual stages.

Some of the activities on this blog come from STEM playgroup events. At our last meeting we created models of ladybug life cycles, featured in this post. These models require a few materials that you can purchase from a craft store such as Michaels and the grocery store. One of the goals of the session was for the children to learn the stages of the ladybug life cycle.

Here are the items that can be used to make the model: Bulsa wood, white rice, yellow rice, wooden ladybugs, tacky glue, felt leaves, green and brown pipe cleaners, paper and transparent tape.

After a parent read a book about ladybugs from the local library which discussed life cycles and other attributes of these beetles, the kids designed their models to take home. Bulsa wood was pre-cut to about 8 inches long and all items were taped or glued on as shown above. While the white rice represented eggs, the brown rice represented aphids, delicacies of ladybugs. Ladybugs lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves, hence the white rice was glued to the leaves. Larva and adult ladybugs eat aphids, displayed in the brown rice near them.

These models are fun to create and an active way for children to science.

Do a JELL-O Brain Dissection


Learning Objective: To identify major parts of the brain.

One of the coolest plastic molds for JELL-O I have seen thus far that looks somewhat realistic is that of a human brain. You can purchase one online. I bought mine on Amazon. You can also find excellent recipes online  for making the brain on various cooking sites as shown at the website address given below.

A few key tips for making the brain include spraying the mold with nonstick cooking spray before adding gelatin so that the brain comes out cleanly when ready. Also, it is important to place the mold upside down in a bowl in the refrigerator so that it does not tip over as the gelatin hardens.  

 Using a diagram of the brain, have learners identify the sulci and gyri (grooves and bumps) in addition to the locations of the major lobes. Have them slice the brain into left and right cerebral hemispheres to perform a simple dissection as future brain surgeons of tomorrow. 

There are so many usages of this JELL-O brain including educational purposes, parties, brain demos, and more. I dare you to eat this one!


Recipe for JELL-O Brain

Images of Brain Lobes 

Make a 3D JELL-O Animal Cell



Learning Objective: To learn the parts of the cell by creating a model.

Want a hands-on activity for learning the parts of the cell? Make a model cell using JELL-O.

A light-colored JELL-O can be set in a bowl or clear ziplock gallon bag. When using a bowl, place various edible and tasty food items that resemble cell structures on top of the gelatin after it solidifies (see links for suggested items). For a bag, the cell parts can be included before the gelatin solidifies. 

Going through the process of learning cell parts by associating them with a food can aid the learning process. Next steps can involve learning the functions of these structures and applying this knowledge in a useful context. 

In addition to serving as a model, the great thing about these cells is that depending on the food they are made up of, they can last for several days in a refrigerator and be eaten if edible. Yummy.


JELL-O Enchanted Learning Craft

JELL-O Animal Cell-BioEyes

Building a Cell You Can Eat-Northern Arizona University 

Use an Engineer’s Tool


Learning Objective: To estimate distance on a map using an engineer’s ruler.

Engineers use special tools to create maps and diagrams of the technology they design. One such tool is the engineer’s ruler which enables them to scale down large 3D objects to 2D diagrams on a piece of paper.

Engineer’s rulers are distinct – they are often triangular with multiple sides consisting of different scales.  The side labeled 10 has inches each equally divided into 10 increments. In this scale, 1 inch represents 10 units. This can signify that 1 inch is equivalent to 10 feet, 10 miles, etc.

The 60 scale indicates 1 inch for every 60 units. The idea is the same for the other scales.

Let’s say that I have a map and I am trying to get to the bakery to buy a birthday cake.  I am on Caledonia Road and I need to get to Spadina Road.  Suppose in my hypothetical map the scale is that every inch is equal to 10 miles.  I can use the 10 scale of the engineer’s ruler on the map to determine how far I will need to travel to get to the bakery so that I know whether or not it is too long of a distance to walk.

Based on this scale, the bakery looks to be a little under 10 miles away as the distance is slightly under an inch. Therefore, I will plan to drive.

This activity can be more challenging by having learners use the other scales or create their own diagrams and maps using an engineering ruler during a lesson where they use engineering design principles.

What a nice, simple piece of technology.

How Many Clones of You…

How Many PictureLearning Objective: To develop a method for estimating height.

A fun endeavor for sightseers is to take a picture in front of a large structure to put into perspective how large or small it is compared to their size. This type of comparison introduces the concept of scale which often becomes easier for children to understand as they developmentally progress in their thinking.

Civil engineers use the concept of scale as they create maps and diagrams for designing large buildings, roadways and more.

Try this activity to explore scale. Have children take a picture standing next to a tall structure. Some examples are school buildings, houses, and large trees. Make sure that someone captures the entire individual and structure in the photo. The taller the structure, the better.

Print copies of the pictures on black and white or on photo paper. Alternatively, allow the learners to view the image on their screens. Have them estimate how many clones of themselves standing on top of each other are needed to be level with the top of the structure.

There are various approaches to solving this problem. Give the children an opportunity to devise their own method, to write about it and/or create a presentation on their approach.

As an extension activity, have older students use their knowledge of their own height to determine an actual value estimation of their tall structure. This activity would be fun to do in teams, with the winners being the group that comes closest to the actual value.

So then…approximately how many times larger than the tree is the man in the diagram above? If the man is 6 feet tall, how tall is the tree? What was your approach?

Design a Balloon-Powered Lego Car


Learning Objective: To design a balloon-powered Lego car.

This project requires just a few common materials, including Legos, straws, balloons, and tape. The car can be designed in any manner, however, it must accommodate a straw with a balloon attached. The balloon must be attached by tape or rubber bands so as not to let air escape.

When you blow up the balloon and let it deflate, this creates a backwards force that pushes the car forwards (AKA thrust). Thus, not only does this project involve engineering design, but also concepts in the physical sciences.

You can create balloon-powered vehicles out of many materials including cardboard, straws, plastic water bottles and more. Instructions for how to create one with a water bottle are featured through the link below.

Go Emmet go!


Four Wheel Balloon Car (PBS Kids)