April 19, 2007

Designing and Building a Cardboard Chair: Children’s Engineering at the TECA Eastern Regional Conference

By Linnell, Charles C

Being able to design and build a cardboard chair in four hours that will support a student, be economically correct, and include in the design the five forces that affect engineered structures is no simple feat.


In February of 2006 the Technology Education Collegiate Association (TECA) held its annual eastern regional conference in Virginia Beach, VA. One event that has seen growing interest and participation is the elementary competition. It is sponsored by the Technology Education for Children Council (TECC), an affiliate council of ITEA. For the last four years the elementary competitions have all been different and challenging, usually based on an elementary design theme. These elementary competitions are important for future technology education teachers because they allow them to transfer and adapt the technological content and skills they are learning in their universities to a unique venue: the elementary classroom. Normally, technology education teachers are assigned to a middle or high school; rarely do they have an opportunity to work with elementary students or their teachers. These competitive elementary events promote the inclusion of the Grades K-2 and 3-5 Standards for Technological Literary: Content for the Study of Technology (STL) (ITEA, 2000/2002) and their benchmarks. This gives the preservice teachers, who may be interested in teaching technology to children, an opportunity to explore age-appropriate teaching strategies and techniques.

Almost all children, at one time or another, have used cardboard to make an imaginary house, fort, vehicle, furniture, or even a space station. A new appliance usually comes shipped in a nice cardboard box. Children often use the discarded cardboard box for designing and making just about every kind of structure they can imagine. Children can also use the cardboard to make usable furniture, such as tables, shelves, and chairs that they can actually sit on.

A good design-and-build activity for an elementary classroom would have cooperative groups or individual children making cardboard chairs. This activity could be used to incorporate: the design process, measuring and mathematics, safely using tools, group processing at the beginning and end of the project, and a discussion of different manufacturing processes. As teachers would observe students' progress they could ask questions such as: What makes some cardboard structures stronger than others? Why do other designs support more weight? What's the best way to orient, combine, and join the cardboard for maximum strength? How do you design a chair that you can lean back on? What's the best way to hold the different parts of the chair together? How do you keep the chair from wobbling and twisting when you sit on it? How do you keep the seat or back from tearing and breaking? These are some of the questions that the teams of technology education students from nine different universities had to solve as they were designing and building cardboard chairs at the 2006 TECA Eastern Regional elementary competition.

The latest competition required the teams (four or five to a team) from universities up and down the East Coast to design and produce a functional cardboard chair. The chair needed to be strong enough to support a college student and designed using basic ergonomic principles. The competitors were to explain how the five forces that affect engineered structures were considered when designing and building their chairs. The five forces are: compression, tension, bending, shear, and torsion (Hutchinson and Karsnitz, 1994). These forces are shown in Figure 1.

The Competition

Teams were given four hours to complete the project, so, in order to finish the chair and follow the guidelines of the competition, time management was important. Each team began by developing a plan of procedure with idea sketches, which progressed to more detailed measured drawings. They started by analyzing the materials and tools provided. Each team was provided with ten sheets of 40" 50", single wall, 5/32" thick, standard corrugate material.

Each team had a large table for a work surface and was supplied with the necessary tools, including an X-acto knife, metal yardstick, markers, white glue, hot glue gun, double-stick tape, and regular masking tape. Time was a factor, and the teams had to work fast and efficiently. They delegated certain tasks to students, or groups of students, who had strengths in areas such as design and fabrication. Each team began brainstorming ideas for getting maximum support from a minimum amount of corrugate material. All the teams seemed to realize that in order to support the weight of a student, they would need to capitalize on the strength of the cardboard by combining it and/or forming it into different shapes, structural beams, or columns.

The teams also had to consider the five forces affecting the structure in their design. When the chair was to be tested, how would they keep it from twisting (torsion)? How would the chair keep from pulling apart (tension)? What would keep the parts of the chair from sagging or tearing (bending and shear)? What would keep it from collapsing when a student sat on it (compression)? Many of these structural design questions were tested through trial and error, and through a process of elimination each team selected what it considered its optimum design and began building.

Elementary Applications

The K-2 and 3-5 STL elementary standards and benchmarks are excellent for providing guidelines for teachers to introduce design and technological content into their daily instruction. Teaching that all human-made things have to be designed and that there is a difference between the natural world and the human-made world is important for providing a foundation of technological understanding for children and their teachers. Middle school and high school technology classrooms and labs are common. However, elementary teachers who include design and technological activities in their curriculum are rare. This is probably because the standard preservice elementary curriculum is already packed with teaching methods and elementary subject-specific courses, i.e., mathematics, language arts, reading, science, social studies, health, and more. There are some schools and organizations in the USA that are promoting and teaching elementary technology education. For example, in Virginia there is a thriving Children's Engineering Educators organization of elementary teachers and administrators who provide excellent inservice opportunities as well as an annual Children's Engineering Convention held each year in Richmond (Children's Engineering Educators, LLC, 2006).

Having helped facilitate the elementary competition at the TECA Eastern regional, the author has observed growing enthusiasm in preservice technology education teachers for elementary/children's engineering and design activities. During the competition, the level of creativity and innovation visibly increases as the university students adapt elementary applications from their own experiences and from the K-2 and 3-5 STL standards. Traditionally, the technology education students are "learn by doing" types who like to design solutions to problems by using tools and techniques. It is also important for them to see the relevance of including design and technological activities in the elementary curriculum, letting children experience that all human-made things first have to be designed, and then people have to use tools and skills to make what was designed. But, this is nothing new in elementary education. In the early twentieth century boys and girls were taught about industry and learned about tools and their uses in the elementary classroom by teachers who were predominantly female (Zuga, 1996).

Completing the Competition

Being able to design and build a cardboard chair in four hours that will support a student, be economically correct, and include in the design the five forces that affect engineered structures is no simple feat. It required teamwork and communication among the participants. The finished products were all very impressive. Some were designed with function as the primary goat. These chairs were very solid and structurally sound. Some were designed to be first aesthetically pleasing, and second structurally sound. Some of these chairs did not withstand the rigorous testing. All of the technology education students who participated in the competition completed their chairs and left with another way to align technology education with elementary education.

Teams from nine universities competed to produce a functional cardboard chair.

Each team began by developing a plan of procedure with idea sketches.

Teams needed to capitalize on the strength of the cardboard by combining it and/or forming it into different shapes.

Teams selected what they considered their optimum design and began building.

The finished products were all very impressive.

Some chairs were very solid and structurally sound.

Some chairs did not withstand the rigorous testing.


Children's Engineering Educators, LLC, (2006). About CEE. Retrieved September 26, 2006, from Children's Engineering Educators, LLC Web site www. childrense\ngineering.com/aboutus.htm

Hutchinson, J. and Karsnitz, J. (1994). Design and problem solving in technology. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers Inc.

International Technology Education Association (ITEA) (2000/ 2002). Standards for technological literacy: Content for the study of technology. Reston, VA: Author.

Zuga, K. F. ( 1996). Reclaiming the voices of female and elementary school educators in technology education. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 33(3), 23-43.

Charles C. Linnell, Ed.D., is an associate professor of Teacher Education at Clemson University, Clemson, SC. He can be reached via email at [email protected]

Copyright International Technology Education Association Apr 2007

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