As a teacher who is working with ten different grade levels, I’m a huge fan of STEM challenges that are low-prep, require everyday supplies, and are still engaging. I’ve used the following challenge with students from grades 3-6 and am always impressed with the depth of thinking that arises from such a simple task.
The Prompt: Create the longest chain possible from a single piece of construction paper.
- Chain must be constructed of interlocking loops
- Materials limited to single sheet of construction paper, scissors, and stapler
- 20-25 minutes to create chain
– 1 piece of construction paper per group (use different colors for each group)
– 1 half sheet of construction paper per group (same color for all groups is fine, but try to
make it a different color than all of the whole sheets of paper)
– 1 pair of scissors per group
– 1 stapler per group
– Extra staples in case groups run out
– Measuring tape
Quickly introduce the challenge to students by sharing the prompt and the constraints.
(Optional, but recommended) Give teams 7 minutes to work with a half sheet of paper, scissors, and a stapler to create a prototype for their chain. This is the time where I’ll often hear students engaging in some high-quality discussions. You can push these conversations deeper by encouraging them to use a measurement tool to try to prove why their theory will produce the longest chain.
After the prototyping phase, have students discard or set aside their chain experiments. Distribute full sheets of construction paper to groups and have them begin working on their final chain. (To prevent cheating, make sure the new paper is a different color than the paper groups worked with during prototyping.) Give students 20-25 minutes to work on their chains. Most groups will use this full time because of the number of strips they’ll have and the time it takes to staple.
Recommended questions to ask while you circulate around the room:
– What did you learn from your prototype that you’re applying to your final chain?
– (For early finishers) Is there anything you could do to extend the length of your chain?
When the building time is up, have teams measure their chains. I like to do this as a whole class, with teams bringing up their chains and measuring them in the front of the room. Teams come to the front, briefly share their strategy, and then measure their chains with a tape measure. We then record team data on the board. Our follow-up discussion doesn’t revolve around who made the longest chain, but rather, which techniques yielded lengthier chains.
I have had success with having students complete this task in both pairs and trios. I prefer trios because the conversation has more voices and ideas and they can set up an assembly-line system for creating their chains.
I will often use a random team generator to create groups and get students working with different people in the room.
During the chain construction, I task teams with coming up with a team name for our measurement chart.