Education Opinion

Perfecting Parachutes for Thrill-Seeking Gummy Bears: Engineering Design Challenges in the Elementary Classroom

By Justin Minkel — January 18, 2014 6 min read
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Carl Sagan famously said, “Second graders make the best scientists.” I find they make the best engineers, too.

My 2nd graders’ favorite project is to design, build, test, and modify a parachute for a gummy bear.

The “what” is straightforward: the kids work in teams of four with a bag of random materials--tissue paper, string, straws, tape, playing cards--to design a parachute that meets two criteria:

1. Their clients, the gummy bears, need a place to sit where they can watch the descent but won’t fall out. (The squishy multi-colored bears love adventure, but they want to be safe.)

2. The longer it takes the parachute to reach the ground, the better. (The bears want a gentle descent with time to look around and take in the scenery.)

The “why” is a little more complex. I’ve thought a lot about what the world will look when my 2nd graders graduate college in 2028. What skills will they need to get a good job and have a meaningful life?

I don’t know what technological advances will have come along by then. iPhones will probably be considered as clunky and vintage as VCR’s are now. I don’t even know what jobs may exist. What I do know is that abilities like innovation, collaboration, and problem-solving will still be critical.

These “non-cognitive” abilities are at the heart of the parachute engineering project.

Phase 1: Design

What the kids do: In the first phase, the 7-year old engineers spread out all the materials, but they can’t touch them yet. They talk about what kind of parachute they could build, why that design makes sense, and how to build it. Before they can begin the building phase, they draw a diagram of the parachute they plan to build.

What’s going on in their minds: The kids are trying to visualize a coherent whole made up of various individual parts. They’re also trying to conceive of a design that will meet the two criteria for the project: safety for the thrill-seeking bears and a slow descent. Because they’re working in a group, they also have to explain and defend their thinking, ask the other team members questions about their design ideas, and seek compromise.

We use a chart of framed language called “Great Things to Say When We Work in Groups” with sentence starters like, “I disagree because ___” and “I don’t understand what you mean. Can you explain it again?” Learning to respectfully disagree, give reasons for their beliefs, and ask clarifying questions is just as important as the math standards in measurement and geometry threaded into the project.

Phase 2: Construction, Testing, and Modification

What the kids do: Now the kids pull out their rulers, grab the scissors and tape, and begin to build the parachutes. Inevitably, there are aspects of the design they drew that don’t work out as well in practice. Sometimes the parachute looks good but drops like a stone. Sometimes the gummy bears tumble out of the basket on impact.

The kids are constantly communicating with their team members, first about how to build the parachute, then about what modifications to make to the design and why they should be made. One team punches holes in the Dixie cup basket they built in order to reduce the weight; a second team agrees that a rectangular chute will work better than a circular one; a third team decides the double-chute they developed isn’t worth the extra weight so they redesign a single, larger chute.

What’s going on in their minds: The students are questioning some of their initial hypotheses about what will work. They’re considering attributes of their materials like weight, shape, and size as they ask “What If” questions: What if we made the parachute out of tissue paper instead of plastic, so it would be lighter? What if we ran the string through straws so the chute doesn’t collapse?

Conflict and compromise tend to heat up as the kids disagree about which modifications will work best. Often, students who struggle with arithmetic are remarkably successful at this hands-on testing and design work, and they realize that they’re strong mathematicians when it comes to engineering applications. Other kids who excel at arithmetic now struggle in math class for the first time. They learn to turn to their peers for help and persevere through frustration and temporary failure.

Final Phase: Product Launch

What the kids do: We head out to the playground, where each member of the team has the chance to release their parachute from the top of the play structure. Students time the descent with a stopwatch and everyone records the time, then runs to see whether the gummy bear tumbled out. Assuming their squishy client survived the four test drops, the contract is awarded to the team whose average descent is longest and slowest.

What’s going on in their minds: In this kind of simulation, failure and success are more tangible than an “A-" or a “C.” The project leads to a firsthand experience of the link between collaboration and competition; often the teams who communicated most effectively end up beating out their rival companies for the contract.

The students talk about what went well and what didn’t, not just in terms of their design, but how they worked together as a team. How did they do at explaining their thinking to other group members, compromising when necessary, and contributing to the work? What will they do differently next time?

Richard Roberts recently released some compelling findings on the value of teaching non-cognitive skills, including this takeaway: Spending a portion of class time on these skills is a more effective way to increase academic achievement than using all your time to work only on the academic content itself.

But teaching these non-cognitive skills doesn’t need to be a separate set of lessons from the core work the kids are doing in traditional subjects like math and reading. This project builds in perseverance, collaboration, and ingenuity. At the same time, I make sure to build in lessons leading up to the project that hit more conventional standards in geometry and measurement.

You can almost always build these bulleted basic skills into a complex project designed to teach 21st century or non-cognitive skills. You can’t do the inverse, though--it’s hard to build true innovation into a worksheet on shapes.

Most students I have taught love to build things. They love to work in teams, even when it’s hard. They also love to solve real-world problems that are way too complicated to be reduced to four answer choices.

Rigor can be fun. Critical thinking can involve raised voices and a messy classroom littered with bits of string and cut straws. Engineering can begin long before college, and our students can do a lot more than memorize facts and complete worksheets.

In the movie Apollo 13, Tom Hanks and his fellow astronauts are slowly running out of oxygen as they orbit the moon. Meanwhile, a team of engineers in Houston works frantically to design, build, and communicate instructions for a CO2 filter built from the materials the astronauts have at their disposal. If they fail, the astronauts will lose consciousness and die.

Involving our students in engineering design challenges prepares them for real-life projects, even if the stakes aren’t quite as high as they were for that NASA team. In these projects, there are thousands of possible “right answers,” applying new concepts matters more than memorizing facts, and temporary failure is a necessary step toward success.

Our students are capable of meeting these challenges. We just need to make sure we provide them.

Carl Sagan would approve.

For an earlier post on the importance of teaching non-cognitive skills, check out True Grit.

Note: All photos taken by me in my classroom.

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.