Lesson 3: Building a Foundation


New and unsolved problems are often pretty hard. If we want to have any chance of making something creative, useful, and clever, then we need to be willing to attack hard problems even if it means failing a few times before we succeed. In this lesson, students will be building a structure with common materials. The structure will be tested on its ability to hold a textbook for more than ten seconds. Most students will not get this right the first time, but it's important they push through and keep trying.


This lesson teaches that failure is not the end of a journey, but a hint for how to succeed. The majority of students will feel frustrated at some point in this lesson, but it's important to emphasize that failure and frustration are common steps to creativity and success.


Warm Up (20 min)

Main Activity (20 min)

Wrap Up (10 min)

Extended Learning

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Students will be able to:

  • Outline steps to complete a structural engineering challenge.
  • Predict and discuss potential issues in structure creation.
  • Build a structure based on team plan.
  • Revise both the plan and the structure until they satisfy the challenge.



Heads Up! Please make a copy of any documents you plan to share with students.

For the Teachers


  • Frustrated - Feeling annoyed or angry because something is not the way you want it.
  • Persistence - Trying again and again, even when something is very hard.


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Teaching Guide

Warm Up (20 min)


This lesson has one new and important word:

Persistence - Say it with me: Per-sis-tence

Trying again and again, even when something is very hard

Try, Try Again

Lesson Tip

Here are some great resources to prep your class with the concept of persistence before you turn them loose on this project:

  • Does everyone get everything right the first time?
  • When I was a baby learning to walk, did I stand up and run off on my first try?
  • Sometimes, the best and most useful things to do are the hardest to learn.
    • It can take a while to learn hard things
    • If you don't do something well at first, does it mean that you never will?
    • Can you think of something that was hard at first, but that you can now do pretty easily?
      • Walking
      • Talking
      • Riding a bike
  • When you fail at doing something, you get a hint at what went wrong. You just need to look for it.
    • If your bike tips over, next time you need to work on balance.
    • If you're filling a balloon and it pops, next time you need less air.
  • Think of the mistakes as chances to learn how to do something better next time.

Main Activity (20 min)

Building a Foundation

Have you ever started on a task, then discovered that it was much harder than you thought it would be? Hard tasks can make us want to give up, but if we stick to our goal and keep trying, then we just might make something better than we’ve ever made before!

In this challenge, we’ll work to construct towers that are strong enough to hold a textbook for at least 10 seconds, using everyday materials.


  • Use only the supplies provided to build a tower.
  • The tower can be any shape, but it has to be at least as tall as the paper cup.
  • The tower must support the weight of a book for a full 10 seconds.

Lesson Tip

The planning stage can be difficult for young students. It may be helpful for you to place some idea "examples" at the front of the room. Do not announce that they are there. Simply encourage students to take a walk if they get frustrated. Try to encourage students to locate the tips on their own if at all possible.


  1. Divide students into groups of three or four.

  2. Explain the rules of the challenge, given above.

  3. Provide each group with limited supplies and make it known that they will get no more.

  4. Challenge the class to think ahead to the problem and plan out their method of building their first tower.

  5. Encourage students to begin building, then have them alert you when they think they’ve met the challenge described by the rules.

  6. Test each structure. Is it taller than the cup? Does it hold a book?

  7. If not, have students enter a cycle of planning, fixing, testing, and planning again until the challenge has been met.

  8. Congratulate the students as they succeed and take pictures of the successful towers!

Wrap Up (10 min)

Flash Chat: What did we learn?

Lesson Tip

Flash Chat questions are intended to spark big-picture thinking about how the lesson relates to the greater world and the students' greater future. Use your knowledge of your classroom to decide if you want to discuss these as a class, in groups, or with an elbow partner.

  • Were you proud of what you made?
  • Do you think you could make a tower as tall as a chair that could hold a person?
    • How many gumdrops do you think you would need?
  • Was there a time that you thought about giving up?
    • How did you get past that feeling?


Having students write about what they learned, why it’s useful, and how they feel about it can help solidify any knowledge they obtained today and build a review sheet for them to look to in the future. We provide a Think Spot Journal - Reflection Journal as a basic template for students to use as their daily journal.

Journal Prompts:

  • What was today’s lesson about?
  • How did you feel during today’s lesson?
  • Draw a picture of your structure.
  • What were some problems you ran into while building? How did you fix these problems?

Extended Learning

Use these activities to enhance student learning. They can be used as outside of class activities or other enrichment.

Try It Again!

Try doing the same activity with different materials.

Standards Alignment

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CSTA K-12 Computer Science Standards (2017)

AP - Algorithms & Programming
  • 1B-AP-08 - Compare and refine multiple algorithms for the same task and determine which is the most appropriate.
  • 1B-AP-11 - Decompose (break down) problems into smaller, manageable subproblems to facilitate the program development process.

Cross-curricular Opportunities

This list represents opportunities in this lesson to support standards in other content areas.

Common Core English Language Arts Standards

L - Language
  • 4.L.6 - Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, including those that signal precise actions, emotions, or states of being (e.g., quizzed, whined, stammered) and that are basic to a particular topic (e.g
SL - Speaking & Listening
  • 4.SL.1 - Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 4 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
  • 4.SL.1.a - Come to discussions prepared, having read or studied required material; explicitly draw on that preparation and other information known about the topic to explore ideas under discussion.
  • 4.SL.4 - Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience in an organized manner, using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.
  • 4.SL.6 - Differentiate between contexts that call for formal English (e.g., presenting ideas) and situations where informal discourse is appropriate (e.g., small-group discussion); use formal English when appropriate to task and situation.

Common Core Math Standards

G - Geometry
  • 4.G.2 - Classify two-dimensional figures based on the presence or absence of parallel or perpendicular lines, or the presence or absence of angles of a specified size. Recognize right triangles as a category, and identify right triangles.
MP - Math Practices
  • MP.1 - Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them
  • MP.5 - Use appropriate tools strategically
  • MP.6 - Attend to precision
  • MP.7 - Look for and make use of structure

Next Generation Science Standards

ETS - Engineering in the Sciences
ETS1 - Engineering Design
  • 3-5-ETS1-1 - Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.
  • 3-5-ETS1-2 - Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
  • 3-5-ETS1-3 - Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.