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“Strongest Structure” Is the Sweetest Engineering Challenge Around

NETFLIX

This article was produced in partnership with Ada Twist, Scientist. Stream now, only on Netflix.

It’s a simple fact of life that kids love building things, from toddlers stacking blocks to high school students competing in robotics competitions. This activity takes that natural inclination and channels it into an engineering challenge that fosters creative experimentation with different kinds of structures. It also happens to be a ton of fun.

Getting kids excited about science is also the goal of Ada Twist, Scientist, the Netflix animated series based on the blockbuster children’s book. It chronicles the adventures of a young Black scientist who stages experiments at home and uses scientific discovery, collaboration, and friendship to help others.

Ada Twist is a great way to get kids excited about science. And like the other Saturdays We S.T.E.M. activities, Strongest Structure is a great opportunity for families to get hands-on experience by performing an experiment. Here’s how:

Prep Time: none

 Entertainment Time: 15 minutes or more

Energy Expended by Child: minimal physical, plenty of mental

What You Need:

  • Gumdrops
  • Toothpicks
  • Coins

How to Play:

For this activity, kids will use a very simple building system with just two materials, something that makes it perfect for kids just starting to grasp the basics of engineering. Those two materials are gumdrops (which form the nodes or joints) and toothpicks (which form the beams that are the bulk of the structure).

Start with making a square so you can make sure your kids understand the system. Place four gumdrops on the table, arranged in a square. Insert the toothpicks halfway into each gumdrop so that they form the edges of the square. Insert four toothpicks vertically, make another square, and place the four gumdrops from the second square on top of the vertical toothpicks. Et voila: it’s a cube, a shape that’s just the beginning of what kids can build with this system.

Once they’ve grasped the basics, introduce one or more of the following challenges, which focus the activity on specific engineering concepts:

  • Tallest Tower Build the tallest freestanding tower possible. Once it gets high enough, the tower will get wobbly, and your kids should realize that the base will need to be expanded to ensure it doesn’t tip over.
  • Strongest Structure Build a structure with a platform that can hold as many coins as possible. Kids will figure out how to reinforce their structures to hold more and more coins (or other similarly small but weighty items) by adding diagonal toothpicks or using other strengthening strategies.
  • Best Building This is more a freewheeling challenge. Without a specific goal in mind, allow kids to create whatever kind of building they can. As they build, you can ask questions and suggest things to help them create what they’re imagining in their mind’s eye. If your kid has a creative soul, this is a great way to show them the connection between that creativity and the word of S.T.E.M.

These challenges work well with one kid, but if you have more than one you can also turn it into a friendly competition (assuming you don’t mind encouraging a sibling rivalry).

Wrap-Up:

By the end of this activity, kids will have gone through plenty of trial and error, something that every scientist and engineer understands is part of their job. They will have also built something cool using everyday items in creative ways.

And while your kids might not be ready for the kind of advanced math that real-life engineers employ, they’re definitely capable of figuring out, for instance, that putting toothpicks diagonally through squares makes a structure stronger. And those kinds of lessons are key to igniting a further interest in engineering.

In other words, the Strongest Structure activity is a great way to encourage your child’s interest in the “E” part of S.T.E.M., putting you well on the way to raising your own Ada Twist.