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Pyramid Construction Teaches Lessons
in Engineering, Patience

The multi-age third and fourth grade class learn STEM skills and how to “Engineer Like an Egyptian.”

Students experiment with various ways to build a pyramid out of sugar cubes that meets set requirements.

Students experiment with various ways to build a pyramid out of sugar cubes that meets set requirements.

Oct. 15, 2013 (TAMPA, Fla.) – The challenge: Build a pyramid out of sugar cubes that fits on a 30-centimeter square base, has four sides and stands eight levels high with each level smaller than the one below it.

How hard could it be?

The third and fourth grade “All Stars” at Corbett Preparatory School of IDS were about to find out. The lesson was structural engineering with pyramids, tying into STEM skills and their historical studies of ancient Egypt. What they learned, however, was as much about problem solving, teamwork and perseverance as it was about geometry, architecture and engineering.

Teachers Ann Cashen and Carmyn Samuel incorporated into their multi-age class the new “Engineer Like an Egyptian” lesson plan written just for them. Cheryl Nelson and Wendy Goldfein, two teachers who have developed an integrated engineering curriculum at their K-6 school, have created the website “Get Caught Engineering,” which contains classroom resources, lessons and ideas.

The exercise promoted collaboration and a willingness to try new approaches.

The exercise promoted collaboration and a willingness to try new approaches.

Students were designated as “Problem Solving Investigators” and asked to build a prototype for a pyramid. Drawing from what they had learned about Egyptian pyramids in class, they began to imagine a design and sketch how they wanted it to look. In teams of four, they shared their ideas and decided how they would collaborate on building one pyramid together.

Cashen reminded the students that everyone has different working styles. Some will want to think about multiple possibilities, she said, while others will want to jump in immediately, and the differences could cause frustrations.

Student Macy Selewach suggested that if that happened, students could tell teammates they were a little frustrated and ask to pause and talk it out. Another student, Darby Stadick, said students might want to step away, breathe and return with fresh ideas.

The students dove into their work, stacking sugar cubes on top of one another. Some groups arranged the cubes in a straight line, while others filled the entire base first, only to run out of supplies. “We need to make it smaller,” one boy observed.

The students dealt with pyramids toppling and with faulty plans — pyramids that wound up with two sides rather than the required four, for example — and had to start from scratch repeatedly. The class also learned when to speak up about their suggestions and when to let someone else try another approach.

After multiple attempts, the teams had a breakthrough when they realized they needed more sugar cubes than they had been using. They mastered construction, but carried with them valuable lessons as to how perseverance, testing and reflection can help solve the toughest problems. In this case, those types of lessons can last even longer than a pyramid.

“Engineer Like an Egyptian,” written for Corbett Prep, asks students to design and build a prototype of a pyramid that meets certain specifications. The unit prepares students for challenges they may encounter throughout the process.

“Engineer Like an Egyptian,” written for Corbett Prep, asks students to design and build a prototype of a pyramid that meets certain specifications. The unit prepares students for challenges they may encounter throughout the process.


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Founded in 1968, Corbett Preparatory School of IDS (formerly Independent Day School - Corbett Campus) is a fully accredited, nonsectarian private school located in Tampa’s Carrollwood neighborhood. The school serves over 500 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade and offers the International Baccalaureate program of study for all students. Teachers are endorsed in gifted education through a master’s level grant with the University of South Florida College of Education. Corbett Prep balances a dynamic, nurturing and safe learning environment with high standards and high expectations to develop a positive approach to life and learning. Corbett Prep has become recognized as an exemplary school with over 7,000 visitors observing and learning from Corbett Prep teachers. For more information, visit www.corbettprep.com or contact the Admissions Office at (813) 961-3087.