It’s all in the paper! – Material challenge

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Today’s challenge was an interesting one. I had the task details up on the pin up board, even before the students arrived. The first ones to walk in immediately noticed the chart, approached it, and started reading through it. As more students streamed in, their attention was drawn to the board as well. Slowly, the pin up board gathered audience.

By the time the last few students trickled in, the class was abuzz with full blown discussions and speculations. The students were ready, and in full action mode within a short time.

The task chart read as follows :

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This time, I went about a little different with the grouping strategy. Usually, I would team up the students first, and then present the day’s challenge. But today, the students already knew what they had to do. Having read the challenge as soon as they entered class, they had had a chance to think about it, to question the specifications, and to informally talk and discuss about it with their peers. Some of them had ideas brewing in their mind, while some wanted to figure out the challenge with their friends. Some were complaining in groups over the limited materials, while yet others were united by their utter disbelief over the material choice. 🙂

Whatever be the reason, little groups were starting to form, and I decided to give the students a complete free hand in forming their teams. While a few decided to go solo, some paired up, and still some teamed up with their friends. Having settled into groups of their own choice, students collected their materials and started working.

As always, we kicked off the session by thinking and brainstorming within the groups. At first glance, most students found the newspaper weak and easily collapsable. So the first challenge lay in figuring out what could be done to this paper, to make it rigid and capable of supporting weight. Many teams started rolling their newspaper, some rolled with their papers still folded, some opened up their papers fully before rolling. Some quickly figured the correlation between the tightness of the roll and its rigidness, while others kept struggling to make their paper rolls stand without bending! Not all groups were sold on the idea of rolling paper. One student decided to scrunch up her newspaper and use it as “stuffing” for her columns. Another team decided to make table legs by cutting the paper into little rectangles and pasting them one on top of the other. It was only after spending close to an hour on this effort, that they realised that all the paper they had, would not be sufficient to achieve legs that were 8 inches long! It turned out to be a first hand lesson in the importance of thinking through, planning and estimating.

The shape and structure of the table that each group was trying to achieve was important too. I kept prodding my students to look around, and take note of the way furniture around them were designed, how they were shaped, how their legs were positioned, & how they were reinforced to improve their sturdiness. While this did help in getting some initial ideas, much of the real learning happened on the ground, as the teams were building their designs. When the table legs started to buckle under weight, students tried to make the legs more rigid by tightening their rolls, or by bulking them up using more paper. When the legs twisted in a certain direction, they figured that the pulling force in the opposite direction offered by a reinforcement could prevent this twisting.

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When faced with the choice to purchase more paper, there were a few students that jumped right in without much deliberation. But what was impressive, was that most groups, thoughtfully weighed out the value added by the extra paper against the cost disadvantage, before reaching a decision.

The building material was fixed, even limited, and yet, the variety in the designs produced was amazing. No two designs ended up looking the same. We had four-legged, three-legged, two-legged, and even a single “elephant-legged” version of a table. 🙂

A few designs had reinforcements at the base, and one team had even used some fancy triangulation techniques.

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After spending two sessions (roughly 3-4 hours) working on their designs, it was time to put them to test. This time, we went all out competition style. I had all the tables lined up in front of the class. Only the designs that qualified at each step, would move forward in the competition. First, we identified all the standing designs. Unless a table was capable of standing by itself, it didn’t really qualify as a table. So, all the standing versions got to move a step forward. The next specification was that the table be able to support the weight of one textbook. We placed a textbook on each of the tables, and only the ones that were able to bear the load without twisting or collapsing took the next step forward.

The height of the table was the next requirement that we tested for. Only those that stood at least 8 inches off the floor progressed forward. By this point, we had eliminated quite a few designs, and were ready to award our first few titles! The tallest table won the high flyer badge, the table that used the minimum amount of paper was awarded the value for money title, and the table that bore the maximum number of books before giving way was crowned the heavy weight champion. The winning design was actually able to support 10 big textbooks! The most innovative design was awarded the idea of the day title, based on a class wide vote.

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Students took away some useful lessons today, most important being – never under estimate a material. It might seem deceptively simple at first, and the extent of its abilities might stay hidden, but the true potential of a material can be experienced only by spending time, working hands-on with it, and exploring it more.

It is true that maker projects many times are big undertakings involving a lot of materials and tools, but sometimes just a single object or material is all one needs to find big inspiration. I definitely plan to do more of these single material challenges in future. But next time I might leave the task more open-ended. Fix the material, not the outcome

With this challenge, we wrapped up our maker sessions for this term! The students were happy to have been part of this adventure, eager to use their free time over the summer to keep building, and thrilled to know that they’ll be back again in this space soon!

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Next year we plan to be back – bigger and better. 🙂

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