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5 Awesome (and easy) Tower Challenges for STEM

One of the first one-day challenges we tried was a tower building one. The Spaghetti Tower!

Now, let’s back up and explain. The first challenges we tried were multi-day activities. That’s right! And I mean multi-multi day. Like 4-5 days. Some of you know that I started as a STEM specialist after teaching in a third-grade classroom for many years. So, when I started my first STEM Challenge I had NO IDEA what I was doing.

We spent many weeks in planning and improving and finally producing our final structures.  So, you can imagine that I was searching wildly for something different as we started our second event. I tried the spaghetti tower with 4th and 5th graders and they loved it so much.

As awesome as that challenge was, it was not the challenge they loved the most. It was the fact that we started and finished it on the same day! One-day challenges are the best!

Let’s take a look at five one-day tower building challenges that also happen to be easy prep!

STEM Challenges all about towers! These five challenges are easy prep and easy clean up. Highly engaging towers with a purpose!

Easy Prep

These five challenges use easy to gather materials and can be prepped in minutes. One requires a wacky material but I will give you tips about that one.

Take a look at:

  • Egg Towers
  • 12 Straws Towers
  • 12 Cards Towers
  • Tennis Ball Towers
  • Water Towers

Egg Towers

My original thought about egg towers was that these would be really short- because we built them out of paper. I did not expect a tall spindly tower to hold weight. And that weight just happens to be an egg!

STEM Challenge: Build a tower using paper. It must hold the weight of an egg! Check this post for more tower ideas.

Several surprising things happened. Students very quickly started rolling the paper into tall cylinders and those will hold a lot of weight. Those that didn’t make a tall single cylinder tried a wider tube with many legs. Whenever the tube started to fall over they added another leg. These first efforts were completed with newspapers.

TIP: Don’t use newspaper. Newspaper ink gets all over everything. It covers their hands and then everything they touch will have grey smudges on it. Their faces, the furniture, their clothes…

So, the second time we tried this challenge we used brown art paper. It is much flimsier than the newspaper so our towers did not get too tall. Many students opted to build a platform to hold the egg.

TIP: Let’s talk about the egg! It is a fairly wacky material. For testing purposes, I use a plastic egg with pennies inside it that equal the weight of an egg. When a team has a tower that is holding the plastic egg safely then I give them a real egg to try. Bonus tip: Put real eggs inside a zippered bag before using them.

TIP: If you want to opt not to use eggs, use a 3-ounce cup. Put a bag of pennies (or weights like washers) in the cup. The tower will have the hold that weighted cup. They will also have to find a way to place the cup on the tower!

12 Straws Towers

You cannot get easier preparation than this challenge! Straws and tape. Best news: this activity is surprisingly challenging.

STEM Challenge- Use 12 straws to build a tower that resembles a famous structure. Check this post for more tower ideas.

I have tried this challenge in several different ways. One is to just have the students build a tower with no specific purpose. Those towers will be quite tall with single straw spires. The biggest problem kids have is getting them to stand up.

Another way we have tried this one is in the photo above. Teams were given a sheet with 4 photos of famous structures. Their straw tower had to resemble one of the structures. These finished towers were not very tall. Teams spent more time in making the towers have a specific shape and less time on trying to have the tallest tower in the class.

TIP: Try this one both ways. I like to have students compare their efforts and also talk about what they learned the first time. How did it help them in the second building time?

12 Cards Towers

We loved the straw towers built like famous buildings so we tried it again with 12 cards!

STEM Challenge: Use index cards to build a tower that resembles a famous structure. Check this post for more towers.

The Index Card STEM Challenge is a very popular one. We use a stack of index cards for that one. We have also tried it with only 12 cards. The towers still get really tall (as tall as 12 cards can be). Students learn quickly that turning the cards on their ends makes the towers taller.

When we tried this version using the photos of the famous structures, students focused on designing the building and it was not competitive at all. I loved seeing their structures and hearing how they solved problems. 

Can you see the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the above photo? It is leaning!

TIP: Save the index cards! I have students sort them into bins of flat cards, folded cards, and rolled cards. We reuse them!

Tennis Ball Towers

Here is another tower that has a wacky material- it’s the Tennis Ball Tower. I keep a basket of tennis balls for challenges. You could also use ping pong balls – I have found those at Dollar Tree in a pack of 8.

STEM Challenge: Build a tower that will hold a tennis ball aloft. Check this post for more towers.

In this challenge, students create a tower that will hold the tennis ball aloft. The twist with this challenge is that they must use ALL of their materials in some way. You can have the rule that all materials must be functional or not. These finished towers are not very tall!

TIP: I have a rule that the tennis ball cannot be pierced. It is a safety issue with me. They can tape it in place or use the string to hold it in place.

Water Towers

One of the water towers in our town had to be repaired a few years ago and it was repainted. It caused quite a stir when the local high school’s motto was painted over. The community wanted the words back on the tower! The Go Team sign was repainted and everyone was happy… and that all led to this challenge.

STEM Challenge: Build a model of a water tower. It must hold a bowl of water and remain standing! Check this post to see more towers.

We did some research on why there are water towers and then we built them. The materials for this one are things we use all the time so the prep was just to pull out the craft sticks and straws. Milkshake straws work well for this one. The idea is that the little bowl must be held aloft and when the tower is standing water is poured into it.

TIP: Let students pour the water into their own water tower. I almost always allow this since I do not want to be the reason the tower falls over!

Click on any of the images to see more details of each challenge!

Why are one-day challenges the best?

There are several reasons this kind of challenge works.

  • Generally speaking, one-day prep and materials are easier. (Not always!)
  • My students like this format because they know their teams change each week.
  • The one-day challenge does not always need a big set-up and research. Kids like getting into the building part quickly.
  • Assemble the materials, give the students a brief overview, go over the rules of the task, let them build. Clean up and next week is a new challenge!
STEM Challenges all about towers! These five challenges are easy prep and easy clean up. Highly engaging towers with a purpose!