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.”
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.
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.