Skyscrapers (photo by strecosa via Pixabay)

Round tower at Monasterboice, Ireland (5th century) (Photo by Kevin King via Wikimedia Commons)

Setting the Stage

Prior Skills and Knowledge:

To successfully participate in this Design & Build, students should be able to work with basic construction tools (e.g., scissors), fasteners (e.g., glue, tape, paper clips, brass fasteners) and materials (e.g., newspaper, straws, craft sticks, modeling clay) as well as have an understanding of basic structures. It is recommended that students conduct the inquiries It's All in the Shape and/or Strong Shapes: Cylinders and/or Finding out about Fasteners prior to participating in this Design & Build challenge.


The Leaning Tower of Pisa (Photo by Saffron Blaze via Wikimedia Commons)

Humans have been building towers since prehistoric times. Many early towers were built as lookouts for the fortifications surrounding settlements to watch for invaders. The Chinese included towers as elements of the Great Wall of China. Tower houses, which served the dual role of a house and defensive lookout, began to appear in Ireland, Scotland and England during the Middle Ages and spread afterwards throughout Europe. Many castles integrated tower structures and these buildings have become associated with great wealth and royalty. Towers have been built in all shapes and sizes and for multiple purposes over the centuries, but the ongoing construction challenge associated with tower building still remains, "How high can we build it?"

In this Design & Build challenge, students will design and build the tallest free-standing tower possible, with the materials provided, and test it to demonstrate if it meets the pre-determined construction criteria.

This design and build could begin from:

  • Reading a book such as Peterriffic by Victoria Kann. Discuss using questions such as:
  • Cover of Peterrific by Victoria Kann (Photo via Amazon)

    • "Why does Peter want to make a tall tower? What are other reasons for wanting to build a tall tower?"
    • "What are the challenges of building very tall structures like towers?"
    • "What types of materials would make a strong tower?"
    • "Why is it important to test a design? What things can you do if a design has a flaw or fails, like Peter's did?"
  • Questions and/or comments from students about tall structures they have seen/are watching being built in the community. Discuss using questions such as:
    • "Where do humans find inspiration for building structures?"
    • "What is the purpose of different tower structure(s) in our community?"
    • "How are very tall structures built? How do they get started? What materials do you see being used? What machines and tools are used?"
    • The Bow, 2011, Calgary, Alberta (Photo by Qyd via Wikimedia Commons)

    • "How does a tall structure affect the neighborhood, local environment and the landscape?"
    • "What geometric shapes do you observe in tower construction?"
  • Exploring photos of Structures: Statues And Towers. Discuss using questions such as:
    • "What is similar about these pictures? Which of these structures have you seen before, in person or in pictures?"
    • "What geometric shapes can you see in the construction of these statues and towers?"
    • "What are the benefits of tower structures that make them desirable?"
    • "What things do you think you would need to consider before building a tower structure?"
  • Watch a video like 10 Tallest Tower in the World (OnTheWeb) via YouTube to see some examples of the tallest towers that exist in the world today. Discuss using questions such as:
    • "What do you notice about these towers?"
    • "What features do most of these towers have?"
    • "Where have these towers been built?"
    • "What different purposes do these towers serve?" (see notes on video webpage)

Tokyo Sky Tree in 2012 (Photo by Kakidai via Wikimedia Commons)

Design Criteria:

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

Design criteria examples:

  • Tower must be as tall as possible
  • Tower must use a minimum of two different geometrical shapes in its construction
  • Tower must be built out of the provided materials and fasteners only
  • Tower must be free-standing and not attached to any external structures or supports (e.g. walls, desks, the ceiling), with the exception of the floor if desired.
  • Option - structure should be under XXX dollars (Entrepreneurial approach)

Materials and Preparation (Click to Open)


  • Pencils and paper for designing
  • Options for construction materials: Recycled newspaper or other recycled paper products, paper straws, spaghetti, craft sticks, etc.
  • Options for fasteners and joiners: tape(s), glue, modeling clay, marshmallows, gum drops
  • Scissors
  • Construction tools (dependent on materials selected) - glue
  • Measuring tools - rulers, metre sticks, measuring tapes
  • Recording tools - pencils, paper, science notebooks, cameras or handheld electronic devices
  • Optional - play money [PDF], for an entrepreneurial focus


Newspaper towerNewspaper tower at different stages of construction (photo courtesy of Sandra McVannel)

  • Determine the type of material(s) you would like students to use for construction. Materials can be limited to only one type of building material (e.g., newspaper) and one type of fastener (e.g., masking tape) or students may be given their choice of materials and fasteners. Note: Always follow local administration guidelines when selecting materials for this Design & Build.
  • Collect the recycled and/or new materials, fasteners and tools that students will use to construct the tower (e.g., newspaper, straws, post-it notes, craft sticks, cardboard, tape, glue, scissors).
  • Set up material sourcing stations, organized by type of material. Alternately, organize an assortment of materials to be provided to each student or work group.
  • Demonstrate how to safely and correctly use all tools that are provided.
  • Option: Provide students with a set amount of play money and set up a store' area where students can buy' their materials. This could be included in the design criteria (e.g., you must spend a minimum of $5 and a maximum of $10.). Click here for reproducible Let's Talk Science money.

What To Do

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

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

  • 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 advantages and disadvantages 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
  • develop a design plan (e.g., identify the tasks or key steps involved in developing the solution, make decisions about tools and materials that will be needed, include labelled sketches)
  • build/develop the design idea based on the 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, students' 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 are the basic outcomes and criteria that the tower must meet?"
  • "How will you know if your tower is successful?"

Students brainstorm and record criteria for the tower.

  • "What words could we use to describe the features the tower must have to be successful?"
  • "What geometric shapes might be used to construct the tower? Are there shapes we wouldn't want to use?"

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 tower structure in the design sketch?"
  • "How will you get the tower to remain stable and not tip over as it is being built?"

Students develop a design plan (e.g., steps in creating a prototype, decisions about tools and materials).

  • "What connecting materials are you going to use?"
  • "What tools might you need for building the tower?"
  • "What things could you look at as inspiration for your tower design?"

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

  • "How did you test your tower? Which of the design criteria does your prototype meet? Which ones does it not yet meet?"
  • "What problems did you have when you tested the tower? What things are limiting the height of this tower or affecting its stability?"

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

  • "What changes in your tower design might improve your chances of making it taller?"
  • "How would you change your design to make it more stable?"

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

  • "What materials worked best to create the height/rise of the tower? What materials seemed to be most effective for stabilizing the structure?"
  • "What challenges did your team encounter in working collaboratively to complete the challenge?"
  • "What did you learn about towers and their construction by designing and building this tower?"

Cross-Curricular Connections


  • Ask questions (e.g., "Why are towers built?", "Why do people always want to build taller towers?", "Have any real towers ever collapsed or failed?")
  • Communicate thoughts, feelings and ideas (e.g., discuss the roles of different tower structures like storage silos, water towers, telecommunications, smoke stacks, tourism, business, housing, and shopping)
  • Work collaboratively (e.g., to come up with possible solutions for construction challenges)

Mathematical Thinking

  • Measure and record length, width, height, mass using non-standard and standard units (e.g., the dimensions of the tower, the length of pieces of material (cm), the load (grams) the tower can support)

Visual Arts

  • Produce a variety of two-and three-dimensional art works to communicate feelings, ideas and understandings (e.g., develop the design of the tower using a digital drawing program; photograph the tower from different angles to document the steps in its construction)

Extending the Learning

Cover of Young Frank, Architect by Frank Viva (Photo via Open Library)

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

  • Connect this Design & Build to the role and career of an architect by reading a book such as Young Frank, Architect by Frank Viva. Discuss using questions such as:
    • "What is the role of an architect?"
    • "What skills do you think an architect needs? How might your interests influence the choice of architecture as a career?"
    • "Where do architects get ideas/inspiration for their creations?"
    • "If you were to become an architect, what would you want to design and build? Why?"

  • Exploring photos of some of the tasks that architects do using Careers: Architect. Discuss using questions such as:
  • Architectural blueprint (Photo by Wokandapix via Pixabay)

    • "What kinds of things do you think an architect does before she/he makes a design drawing?"
    • "What types of tools does an architect use?"
    • "What skills and characteristics does an architect need to have?"
    • "Why does an architect make a model of a project?"

  • Exploring the tallest buildings in Canada and/or other unique tall buildings by watching a video such as:

  • Reading a book such as Animal Architects: Amazing Animals Who Build Their Homes by Daniel Nassar and Julio Antonio Blasco, to investigate amazing builders in the animal kingdom.

    Cover of Animal Architects: Amazing Animals Who Build Their Homes by Daniel Nassar and Julio Antonio Blasco (Photo via

    Discuss using questions such as:
    • "Which animals build tower-like structures?"
    • "What geometric shapes can you detect in the structures that animal make?"
    • "What are some of the different uses/purposes for these animal structures? What happens inside different animal homes?" (e.g., storks build a nest to incubate eggs and feed and protect the chicks, a monarch butterfly builds a chrysalis to change from a caterpillar to a butterfly - for its metamorphosis)
    • "How do animals use construction materials in a way that is similar to humans? What types of materials and building methods are different from what humans use/employ for building?"