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PrimaryDesign & TechnologySTEM

STEM activities – Engineering ideas for every class

Laura Cross discusses why you don’t have to be an engineer to teach the subject, and shares activities to engage every year group…

Laura Cross
by Laura Cross
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PrimaryDesign & Technology

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Engineering is all around us. Engineers are behind everything you use each day, from the scooters your pupils ride to school to the kettle you make a beeline for at 3.30.

Young children are natural-born engineers, constantly investigating to understand how things work. However, as they move through school and practical learning makes way for the more theoretical, children start to think less and less in this way.

Engineering isn’t explicitly part of the primary National Curriculum, but it does form part of design technology, ICT, science and maths. It can also be drawn in across the curriculum, such as by building your own viaduct when studying the Romans.

If you haven’t been teaching any engineering, maybe you’re put off because it sounds complicated, like it’s going to need loads of resources, or maybe make a mess. But making time for engineering in your classroom can not only be fun, it can also improve outcomes for your pupils and for society as a whole!

Starting to bring more of this subject into your classroom doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming, either. In fact, it can be one of the easiest subjects to teach because pupils have to work things out for themselves.

Here are some simple ideas to get you started with your class using accessible resources and minimal prep time:

Bridge building for EYFS

Resources: Pile of hardback books; small world characters or animals; two classroom chairs.

Activity:

  • Place your small world characters or animals on one chair with around a 15cm gap to a second chair.
  • Ask children what could help the character cross from one chair to the other. You can add a narrative to this with water/trolls below etc.
  • Once you’ve discussed the idea of a bridge, ask them to use books to build a bridge. They will likely place one book across the gap and you can show the character successfully crossing.
  • Next move the chairs further apart and ask them to make another bridge. This time they’ll need to overlap the books to create a bridge.
  • Let children work in small groups to see who can make the widest bridge from books and extend by adding a requirement to support a certain weight or number of characters.

Engineering thinking: Pupils will be investigating and testing the type of books that work best, how best to balance the books, the need to weigh down the ends of the books, as well as measuring and counting distance and weight.

Bridge building for KS1

Resources: Selection of junk modelling materials such as straws, craft sticks, paper cups, cardboard; tearable tape (e.g. washi tape); scissors.

Activity:

  • Start by creating a river that a bridge must cross. You could tie this in with the Three Billy Goats Gruff story to add a cross-curricular element. Make your imaginary river from a piece of material, sheets of A4 or some exercise books. Make your river around 20-40cm wide.
  • In small groups, give pupils a selection of junk modelling resources to build a bridge to cross their river. You might demonstrate how they can join the materials with tape, but don’t give any bridge ideas yet.
  • Give pupils time to build, sharing good models with the rest of the class and building on ideas where necessary. This works best when you don’t give any ideas to start with so each group thinks of their own bridge design. You’ll be surprised at their creativity!
  • If pupils build their bridge successfully, tell them it also needs to support a minimum weight, made up of a number of coins/counters/ bricks etc. Give them extra time to improve their bridge to add strength.
  • Give pupils the KS1 engineering bridges worksheet to record their bridge design and materials used.

Engineering thinking: Pupils will plan, design, build and test structures making constant improvements and iterations to solve problems that arise.

Bridge building for KS2

Resources: Sheets of A4 paper, piles of chapter books, glue sticks, small weights such as coins, counters or blocks.

Activity:

  • Create two piles of books of the same height, at least 5cm high. Measure a 15cm gap between the books and demonstrate to pupils they need to create a paper bridge to cross the gap.
  • Place one sheet of A4 paper as a bridge and then add your small weights one by one to the centre of the bridge to see how many it can support before buckling. Don’t hold or weigh down the ends of the bridge, to show it won’t support much this first time.
  • Next tell pupils in small groups they must make a bridge to support the most weight they can using only two sheets of A4 paper. They can fold and/or glue their paper in any way they like. Give them time to investigate different ways of folding the paper, sharing good models and suggesting ideas where necessary. They can use the KS2 paper bridges worksheet to record their designs and the weight each bridge supported.
  • If necessary, after a few minutes suggest that folding the edges of the bridge up like a handrail on each side will work well and they can investigate different heights for the fold.
  • Give a set period of time to see which group can build the strongest bridge and then share and discuss the results.

Engineering thinking: Pupils will investigate by planning, designing and testing different bridge constructions and thinking about how the same material can be used in different ways to impact its strength.

Laura Cross runs Inventors & Makers workshops, clubs and classes to bring hands-on engineering and design to primary schools. Find out more at inventorsandmakers.com or follow Laura on Twitter at @InventorsM.

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