June 24, 2007
June 24, 2007
June 27, 2007
12.1497.1 - 12.1497.20
Tower of Straws: Reaching New Heights with Active Learning in Engineering Design for the First-Year Curriculum
Building a tower out of straws has been used as an activity for many years at all educational levels. In general terms, teams of students are provided with a fixed number of straws and fasteners (such as paper clips or straight pins) and are instructed to build a structure as tall as possible within a limited amount of time. Sometimes a constraint is added, usually that the tower must be able to bear a specified load or withstand other mechanical disturbances such as wind or vibration. Lesson plans for this activity are readily available on the Internet; the majority of them present the building of a tower of straws by a team of students as a methodology for developing cooperative learning skills. However, it is possible to modify this activity for use in first-year college engineering courses as an introduction to, or illustration of, the engineering design method. The scope of the problem is well-defined, allowing for the entire engineering design process to be accomplished within a short period of time. First, the problem is given to the class with appropriate constraints. Teams are formed to design and analyze possible solutions, which may include the development of drawings and/or prototypes. From the suggested solution alternatives, decision matrices are developed through classroom exercises for evaluating the success of the design against the set of original performance criteria determined by the students at the outset. Tasks are assigned amongst the team members, delegating roles for planning, design, and assembly of the structure. A testing protocol is developed and utilized following the building of the towers in class. Finally, reflection is used to help summarize the learning experiences in the areas of engineering design and teamwork, and how they can be applied in the future.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the methodologies successfully used at two institutions for implementing the Tower of Straws assignment and provides an assessment of its usefulness as an active learning exercise in introducing first-year engineering students to the engineering design process. The paper will describe two very different approaches to the same exercise, along with the assessment results from both Ohio Northern University (ONU) and Northeastern University (NU). The assessment tool maps responses to what the students perceive they learn about the design process steps and also assesses if the students learn engineering principles and teamwork the way the instructors intend for them. Suggestions for expanding on or modifying the activity for the purposes of engineering education and practical application will also be presented and all materials for implementing the Tower of Straws will be made available to educators in the appendices.
1. Background on the Tower of Straws Assignment
The Tower of Straws assignment has had a history of use in K-12 education. There are a variety of names offered to the exercise, as well as different sets of goals to be accomplished. Appendix A offers a sampling of 12 online resources related to this assignment. An analysis of data culled from these sites offers some insight as to the general characteristics of the typical Tower of Straws assignment. Obviously, all include straws as the primary construction material; however, the number of straws varies from a low of just 16 to a high of 200, with 50 being the most
Estell, J. K., & Jaeger, B., & Whalen, R., & Freeman, S., & Yoder, J. (2007, June), Tower Of Straws: Reaching New Heights With Active Learning In Engineering Design For The First Year Curriculum Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. https://peer.asee.org/1854
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