Parts, Purposes, and Complexities



Ever since I stumbled upon the Agency By Design thinking routine called “Parts, Purposes, and Complexities,” I’ve been excited to try it out. (Check it out here.) In essence, it is an activity designed to get students looking closely at objects, thinking about what parts comprise them, and analyzing how they are put together. I conducted “Parts, Purposes, Complexities” (both in discussion-based and written form) and was blown away by the detail and complexity of thinking that my 4th grade engineers showed in their work.

To introduce the routine, we did a whole-class version of the task using a standard #2 pencil. I gave each student a pencil, as having the tangible object in front of you is critical for this thinking routine. Working together, we identified the parts, then came up with the purposes for each of those parts, and finally observed and noted complexities about the item (e.g. how the parts work together or noting other objects with which the item is designed to work.)

After the whole class analysis of a pencil, students were invited to choose an item of interest from a bucket of random things that I’d collected from around the classroom. I tried to select items that were interesting, but that weren’t so complicated that they’d require a whole notebook to describe all of the parts. For this initial application of the thinking routine, I also tried to avoid objects that had components inside that would be difficult for students to discover. (Though, I’d like to repeat this routine later in the year in a take-apart activity.)

I created a guiding paper to help students go through each step of the “Parts, Purposes, and Complexities” routine. The first step was to create a close drawing of the item, as drawing is a great tool for helping students notice details that they might not if they just held onto the item. Here are a few 4th grade samples of this part of the routine.

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The next part of the routine is to make a list of the parts of the item. We spent some time discussing that it was important that you list all of the parts, but that you did not need to know the technical names for all of the parts and could feel free to make up names that made sense to you. Here’s a sample of a list of parts (from a student working with a screw.)

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Following the examination of the parts, students copied their lists into the next section of the routine — purposes. Then, for each part, students had to describe what they thought the purpose of that particular part was. Here are a couple samples, from students describing a bottle of Elmer’s glue and a hot glue gun.

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The final step of the routine was the one that pushed my engineers’ thinking the most — identifying the complexities of their item. I defined complexities as the ways in which  the parts work together, specific functions of the item that require multiple parts, or other items that were considered in the design (e.g. a stapler is designed to fit standard-sized staples.) Below are two samples — one from a student describing complexities of a syringe and one from a student examining scissors.

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Overall, this routine was a great way to get my students thinking like designers and hopefully has started to spur their curiosity about and recognition of the parts, purposes, and complexities of the millions of objects that surround them.

If you’d like to try this activity with your students, you can grab a copy of the handout I gave to students here.


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