Setting the Stage

Top image: Pixabay

Prior Skills and Knowledge

To successfully participate in this Design & Build, students should be able to work with basic cutting and fastening tools (scissors, tape dispensers, etc.) and materials (glue, tape, etc.) and be familiar with forces that act on structures. It is recommended that students participate in the Strong Shapes: Cylinders Inquiry before doing this Design & Build challenge.


A water tower is an elevated structure supporting a water tank. They are built tall enough so that they can supply water without using power (water pressure is produced by the elevation of the water above ground and gravity). Water towers can store potable (drinkable) water as well as provide emergency storage for firefighting. An important skill for engineers who design structures like water towers is the ability to visualize what a product might look like and how it will perform under certain conditions. Students have opportunities to develop this skill when they build their prior knowledge about strong shapes into their visualization of how paper can be used to support a weight.

Water tower in Brockville, Ontario
Source: Tony Hisgett, Wikimedia Commons

In this Design & Build challenge, students will develop their Design & Build skills as they construct a structure out of paper that is of a given minimum height and can support a minimum of one full 500 mL water bottle at the top of the structure for a given period of time (e.g., five seconds).

This design and build could begin from:

  • questions and/or comments that arise after going for neighbourhood walk and seeing a water tower. Discuss using questions such as:
    • "What do you think is the purpose of this structure?"
    • "Why do you think it is important to have water stored this way for a community?"
    • “What could happen if a community did not have a water tower?”
  • exploring photos of water towers. Discuss using questions such as:
    • “What do these structures have in common? How are these structures different?”
    • “Why do you think this structure is built the way it is?”
  • Cover of Rosie Revere, Engineer
    Source: Andrea Beauty, Open Library

  • reading a book such as Rosie Revere, Engineer. Discuss using questions such as:
    • “What might Rosie use to build a water tower?”
    • “How do you think Rosie would get water into and out of a water tower?”
    • “What other objects function in a way similar to a water tower? (e.g., water cooler, reservoir)

Design Criteria

As a class, students brainstorm criteria that their prototype water tower must meet. Educators may choose to add other criteria that are curriculum-specific, such as using joiners/fasteners, measuring, using specific materials, measuring forces, etc.

Design criteria examples:

  • The structure must be free-standing - it may not be attached to the floor and may not be supported or touched by a student or an external object
  • The water bottle must be placed at the top of the structure
  • You can only use materials provided
  • The tower structure must be a minimum of 25 cm tall (to the height where the water bottle sits)
  • The tower must support a minimum of one full 500 mL water bottle at the top of the structure
  • The structure must be able to support the water bottle(s) for at least five seconds (5 sec.)

Materials and Preparation (Click to Expand)

Materials for activity including paper, fasteners and 500 mL water bottle

Suggested materials
Source: photo by Let's Talk Science


  • paper (newspaper, construction paper, cardstock, etc.)
  • fasteners (masking tape, transparent tape, elastic bands, etc.)
  • scissors
  • 500 mL (unopened) water bottles


  • Collect the materials that students will use to construct the prototype water towers. The materials list above is only a suggested list.
  • Students could all be provided with the exact same materials and tools or students could choose their own materials.

What To Do

Students develop Design & Build skills as they design, build and test a prototype water tower.

Students will follow the steps of the Design & Build process:

Students preparing to build water towers at a Let’s Talk Science community event
Source: Let's Talk Science

  • identify the problem to be solved/need to be met
  • brainstorm criteria that the prototype must meet
  • share their questions and ideas for a solution to the problem/need
  • discuss the pros and cons of each in order to select a potential solution to be tested
  • visualize what the solution might look like and make design sketches based on their visualizations
  • identify the tasks or key steps involved in developing the solution (the design plan)
  • make decisions about tools and materials that will be needed
  • build/develop the design idea based on their sketches and design plan
  • test their prototypes based on the design criteria
  • modify the prototype and retest it against the design criteria as necessary
  • reflect on their results and identify things that could be done to improve their prototypes


Observe and document, using anecdotal comments, photos and/or video recordings, student’s ability to:

  • Work Collaboratively – students work collaboratively to complete a task and evaluate their group processes throughout the Design & Build process
  • Generate Ideas –  students use idea generation strategies, such as brainstorming, to identify possible solutions as well as make decisions about the pros and cons of each solution
  • Communicate –  students communicate their thinking and learning in words and/or sketches and/or photos and/or videos, etc. (e.g., in design plans that include 2D design sketches, in outlines of key design steps/tasks, in lists of required materials/equipment/tools)
  • Work Safely –  students demonstrate safe practices when using a variety of tools and materials while building/creating prototypes
  • Reflect – students reflect on the results of their prototype testing and suggest things that they might do differently to improve their prototypes

Co-constructing Learning

Saying, Doing, Representing

Educator Interactions:
Responding, Challenging

Students identify and refine the problem to be solved/need to be met.

  • “What is the purpose of a water tower?”
  • “What do all water towers have in common?”

Students brainstorm and record criteria for the water tower.

  • “What words could we use to describe some of the features the water tower must have to be effective?”
  • “What should the minimum height be for the water tower?”
  • “Should everyone use the same materials? Why or why not?”

Students visualize what the solution might look like and make design sketches based on their visualizations.

  • “Why do engineers label all of the parts of their design sketches?”
  • “How are you going to represent each part of the water tower in the design sketch?”

Students make observations and decisions about the available tools and materials.

  • “What tools might you need for building the water tower?”
  • “Which type of paper would make for a strong structure?”
  • “Which type of fastener do you think would be best to use? Why do you think this?”

Students build/develop and test the design idea based on their sketches and design plan (create the “prototype”).

  • “Is your structure stable? How do you know? Is there any part of the water tower that is not stable?”
  • “Is your water tower tall enough? Have you tried measuring it?”

Students modify the prototype and retest it against the design criteria as necessary.

  • “How did you make your tower stronger and more stable?”
  • “What changes in your model might improve your results?”
  • “How would it change your design if it had to hold two water bottles?”

Students reflect on the results of their testing and identify things that could be done differently in the future.

  • “What materials worked best? What materials did not work as well?”
  • “What challenges did your team encounter in working collaboratively to complete the challenge?”
  • “What would you do differently next time?”

Water tower decorated to look like a corn cob
Source: Jonathunder, Wikimedia Commons

Cross-Curricular Connections


  • Ask questions (e.g., “Why do we need water towers?” “Why do people need a reliable source of water?” ‘Where is the water tower closest to where you live?”)
  • Communicate thoughts, feelings and ideas (e.g., talk about…; discuss how…)
  • Brainstorm and work collaboratively to come up with solutions for construction challenges

Mathematical Thinking

  • Measure length, volume and time using standard units (e.g., height of the tower, mass of water in the bottle, time the tower stays standing)
  • Recognize and use 2D and 3D shapes (e.g., explore how certain geometric shapes can be used to make a structure strong and stable)

Visual Arts

  • Use elements of design to communicate ideas or messages (e.g., include design elements on the water tower that reflect something important about the community)

Extending the Learning

If your students are interested in learning more, the following may provoke their curiosity:

  • Challenge students to place as many water bottles as they can on the paper water tower base. What is the maximum number of water bottles that they can place on the tower before it falls/breaks? They could also try placing 2L pop bottles on top of the tower.
  • What constraints do they have and what problems do they run into?
  • Challenge students to create a water tower in which they can add and remove water from the system, such as the water stops that were used to refill steam locomotives.
  • Have students suggest practical applications of water containers similar to water towers in everyday life (plant watering system, water bottle for small animal cages, etc.).
  • Students testing their prototypes at a Let’s Talk Science community event
    Source: Let's Talk Science

    Steam locomotive passing a water stop
    Source: Wdiehl, Wikimedia Commons