Here is Why You Need to Build Towers

We build towers quite often! But, why? I have a few reasons.

First, let's see just how many different kinds of towers we have tried: are you ready for the number?

16. Sixteen. And that is not counting the ones we tried that were failures that I have never told you about. Yes, that has happened a few times.

Keep reading and I will explain why we build towers and share some of our unique types of towers.

STEM Challenges- 6 Reasons towers are important building structures in the STEM Lab. Resources and tower samples are included.



So, why build towers?

I have some simple reasons for including towers often!

  • Not all towers have to be super tall. Some are challenging even when they are shorter.
  • It can be a little wacky, but the challenge of using odd materials just makes us solve more problems.
  • Every tower is different but every tower has the same basic underlying principles. We have found that we learn from every tower building experience and use that knowledge on the next one.
  • Towers are part of real-life. Even my small town has some towers- buildings, water towers, and satellite or cell-phone towers.
  • It's competitive, very competitive. 


Not all towers are tall.

Sadly, and much to the dismay of some of my students, some towers are not tall. Oh, they want them to be taller, but sometimes the constraints of the task prevent it.

When I hear the complaining about "these little bitty towers" I remind them everything is relative. We are building a model, a prototype. So, what if every inch on the tower represented ten feet or fifty feet. Their eyes open widely and they get busy trying to build the Empire State building.

STEM Challenge - Each team starts with the bin of materials and a task card. The card instructs them to build the base of the tower. That's all. Just the base. After five minutes I stop them and every team gets up and moves to the next table.

The Platform Tower is one that we absolutely love, but it turns out to be only about 18 inches tall.

Here's the premise (and it's a doozy!) Each team starts with the bin of materials and a task card. The card instructs them to build the base of the tower. That's all. Just the base. After five minutes I stop them and every team gets up and moves to the next table.

They get their second task card and it tells them to add the legs to the base. The teams are adding the legs to the base another team started. Think about it. After five minutes they all rotate again and get the next card. They must add a central platform to the base and legs made by two other teams.

Yikes! Are you seeing where this is headed? What if the teams before you used materials in a different way and now you have to change your thinking and improvise quickly? What if the team ahead of you did not complete their task and you have to finish it before you can begin your own?

Wow! I love this challenge because of the incredible problem solving that occurs!

Towers can be a little wacky!

The truth is sometimes we use unusual materials because...tight budget. When you teach multiple classes of the same grade level you have to be frugal with materials.

That is why we use wacky materials but I also love to watch students solve the problems that come with those materials. How can you use a piece of foil? What are you going to do with those sewing bobbins? Can you make windmill blades out of cardstock?

We have built our share of towers that were just materials I had on hand or things that were given to me for free. Like pencils.

This Twirling Tower STEM Challenge had as one of the main requirements that it must have a  twirling part with a purpose. Elementary STEM

The Twirling Towers challenge was invented because I had hundreds of pencils given to me as school began one year. The idea of sharpening a lot of brand new pencils was daunting and then I decided to build things with them first!

That thought became a tower built of pencils. But I didn't just want teepee towers. I wanted the tower to have a purpose. So, why not make a part on the tower twirling?

So, that was one of the main requirements of this tower. It had to have a twirling part with a purpose. It had to be a logical purpose, too. We made a lot of windmills, but we also had some creative ideas. In the photo above you can see the twirling tower that was part of a mini-golf course. The team made a golf club from a craft stick and a cotton swab. The ball is the cotton bulb from the swab. They loved presenting this to the class and showing us that you had to hit the ball into the hole without being struck by the turning fan on the tower. How fun is that!

So, we build towers with wacky materials just to experience the problem-solving and the innovative ideas kids will try.


Every tower is different.

Well, now, that is real-life. Every tower is built differently. They also have many different purposes. Here's a great idea: Challenge each team to research and find 10 different towers- all with a different purpose. Adding some research time into a STEM Challenge is another great reason to build towers (or bridges). You will have students finding fascinating facts and photos of the towers.

Then challenge them to create this Suspended Cup Tower!

STEM Challenge- Suspended Cup Towers- The idea with the suspended cup tower is that two cups must be at the top level of the tower. The tower has to be a certain height and the cups must be as far away from one another as possible.

The idea with the suspended cup tower is that two cups must be at the top level of the tower. The tower has to be a certain height and the cups must be as far away from one another as possible. The farther away the students make the cups from one another the more difficult this task is! They learn this quickly and begin to adjust the height and distances. 

What makes this hard is that there will be a winning tower and they receive scores in several categories. Oh, my, this one has a lot packed into it.

Every tower has the same underlying construction principles.

Here is another one that is remarkably different and surprisingly challenging. You need only one material. A piece of foil.

Can you build a tower in STEM class using just a 12-inch piece of foil and a tiny bit of tape? STEM for the elementary classroom!

With this Foil Tower, you can also allow students to use tape. When I use tape I only give each team about a one-foot strip. You can give teams more, but if they have a lot they will use a lot. And, here's the thing- tape is really heavy and these towers cannot stand up with a lot of tape above the tabletop. We primarily use the tape to anchor the tower to the table.

And, this brings up one important thing- anchoring that tower to the table. This is one of the basic construction principles. Every tower must have a good base and be anchored in some way. Taping a tower to the table is a strategy and so is using a guidewire string.

We find that from one tower to the next students will remember those construction basics and apply what they learned to the next build. That has to be a great reason to build multiple versions of towers (or bridges, cars, etc.)

Towers are real life!

I told my students about a cell-phone tower I saw recently. It was, by far, the tallest tower of that type I had ever seen and it had hundreds of guide wires attached to the ground. It was pretty incredible.

Whenever we build a tower in class I do try to point out there are real-life versions of the type we are building. Even the ones built of wonky materials - notice the foil tower above resembles the Eiffel Tower!

The ultimate elementary STEM Challenge. Half the team builds the tower and half builds the satellite dish and then they combine the two! Great teamwork for this STEM Challenge!

So, naturally, we built a satellite (cell-phone) tower one day. We used foam trays and plastic cups and used an interesting design requirement. Half the team built the tower and the other half built the satellite dish. Then they had to combine the two parts into the final tower. Whoa!

Talk about teamwork! The two halves had to communicate throughout the design and building time in order to get the two parts to fit together.

It's Competitive!

Now, I know what you are thinking! Why would adding some competition to a STEM Challenge be a great idea! Well, here is why?

I cannot tell you how many times I have had a team tell me they were finished and they were satisfied with their construction. And then, moments later, discover that another team has a taller tower.

STEM Challenge- create a replica of a famous landmark and make a plastic spoon a functional part of your design!

You better believe they get back to work. Nothing spurs on a group more than thinking they can beat another team. What this means for me is simple! I see teams getting back to work to improve a tower in unique ways- sometimes a little creativity will increase the height by only an inch. But, that's an improvement that would not have happened without the competitive nature of a STEM Challenge.

In the Spoon Tower above, the competition became all about creating a model of a famous landmark. Every team that tried this kept adding embellishments to their replicas and it was really fun to watch!


The absolute best reason to try towers is this:

Think of one of your students with a future as a civil engineer that builds towers and is responsible for the structural integrity of holding up that tall building. The beginnings of dreams like this can come straight out of STEM class!

Which tower will you try next? 


STEM Challenges- 6 Reasons towers are important building structures in the STEM Lab. Resources and tower samples are included.

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