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Umbrella Challenge – STEM Activity for Kids

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Umbrella STEM Challenge - create a shelter to keep a tissue dry

This past week in our co-op class we worked on another ‘instant challenge’ together, breaking up into four teams to create a structure that would keep a tissue dry. Out of all of the projects we have worked on so far, this one seemed to click with the kids.

Each week we have divided into groups, raced to finish a project using the few items provided, and at times there has been grumbling of “they copied our idea” or frustration when what seemed like a great plan literally crumbled to pieces. While not everyone was successful in their building endeavor, the umbrella project brought everyone together and helped the kids see the importance of teamwork.

The Umbrella Challenge

We brought a large Rubbermaid bin into class, 2 quarts of water, a colander, a tissue, and a container (to keep the tissue from touching the bottom of the bin).

Challenge: Create a structure that would keep the tissue dry when water was poured (like rain) over it with a set amount of materials.

Materials: 2 pieces of paper, 3 rubber bands, 4 pipe cleaners, 3 playing cards, 2 pencils, 2 paper cups, 4 pieces of tape, 5 cotton balls, and 3 rubber bands.

Also needed: water, colander, tissues, and a large plastic tub.

Team Results

The kids were broken up into four teams and given a short amount of time to chat with their teammates and decide on a design idea. As soon as they had an idea they set to work on their designs. The structures could be tested at any time by the students, but had to keep the tissue dry when the teachers tested it.

Team #1

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One of the creative things this team did was use the cotton balls as the corner bases, attaching them to the pipe cleaners. While their structure was stationary on the carpet, when placed in the tub, it slipped around, so they added them to give stability, knowing when the water fell in the tub it would be soaked up into the cotton balls and give it a little more weight.

They also poked the pencils through the corners of the paper to give it a good arch and place the playing cards on the top so the paper wouldn’t soak through as quickly.

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We poured the water over top and their design was successful – the tissue stayed dry. Out of all of the supplies, they didn’t use the cups or rubber bands, but did use everything else.

Team #2

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This team didn’t use all of their supplies (rubber bands), but created a narrower shelter, using the pencils as the base and paper cups to provide a ‘run-off’ area for the water. Overall, they didn’t have a solid structure and needed to use the tub to support the ends of their shelter (while it was supposed to be free-standing).

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When the water was poured over, the structure was too narrow, so the tissue did absorb some water. While in theory it did seem good, the overall design didn’t quite work.

Team #3

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This team earned some points for creativity and strength. Their legs were very stable (good idea rolling the paper to create a stronger leg that wouldn’t get floppy when wet as quickly). They used almost all of their materials (they chose not to use the cups).

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Although they had a great base to start with, their structure wasn’t wide enough to cover the tissue when the water was poured over it and ended up soaking wet.

Team #4

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While team 4 didn’t quite use all of their material creatively (ahem – the rubber bands were dropped on the top so they could say they has included them), they did have a great base for their umbrella using two pencils as stability to the pipe cleaners looped through the corners to lift it up above the tissue. Their top was also thick so the water would stay off the tissue (using cards and two sheets of paper with the paper cups cut up inside to provide extra protection). Not a beautiful structure, but it stayed together!

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When the water was poured over their structure, the tissue stayed dry!

The Importance of Teamwork

While the teams were busy working, there were a few complaints of ‘they are copying us’ (even though the other team wasn’t looking) and frustration when what seemed like a good idea, turned out to be a flop and plans had to be re-worked (and still flopped).

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Although I had seen two of the teams beginning structures, I pulled out my own set of supplies and decided to put something together quickly. Ironically, my structure was very similar to one of the other teams (team 4) that I hadn’t seen until we all came together as a group.

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My structure used the paper as the ‘umbrella’ with the three cards together underneath and held up the the pipe cleaners. The rubber bands were used to keep the pencils closer together so the paper would arch and not spread out too far when it became wet. Not too shabby for about 4 minutes of quickly building.)

As a class we had a great talk about how there are times when we may be working on an idea or concept, have the same supplies or focus, and each of us may have some similar plans, but may tweak it in a different way. It isn’t copying, but sometimes just happens. The process of discovering what does and doesn’t work often leads us to a better way of creating something.

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Coming together as a group, we took the best ideas from each team and built a structure using those designs and had an even better structure. The cups were cut in half and we added slits to create addition ‘run-off’ areas and also provide a way to keep the paper in a tent style. The three playing cards were bent in half over the paper to create a more waterproof peak.

Note: We didn’t have enough time to fully build it, but would have added the pencil and pipe cleaner base from Team 4 to keep the paper up and out of the water.

While individual teams had good ideas, together, as a whole, the best one was created. It was really a great ‘learning’ moment and helped diffuse some of the frustration between the kids – team building at its best.

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  1. This looks amazing and fun for the kids to try. Thank you so much for sharing this great idea and I can’t wait to try it with my 4th graders.

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