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Simply Beautiful (lesson plan)


Students will be working on a scenario where they form teams to compete for a contract to create a public display by creating a mockup of a kinetic sculpture to be installed along the “riverwalk” in New Bern. (**Adapt this to your town so students will have a more personal connection**) Students will study an existing sculpture at the North Carolina Museum of Art by Vollis Simpson as well as the artist himself. Students will analyze the sculpture to determine how it works but to also theorize how the artist is reflected in his work. To develop an understanding of the mechanics of the sculpture students will spend time studying simple machines and experiment with combining them into compound machines as they begin to develop their own kinetic sculptures. They will be using mechanical advantage calculations of simple machines to ensure that each piece will be able to move properly to accomplish their goal. Upon formation of the teams students will be creating a logo that reflects who the team is and will be asked to think about they will integrate this identity into their sculpture. Throughout the project the Engineering and Design process is embedded in daily tasks and will be used as a framework for developing their project proposals which will be presented at the end with their sculptures as a culminating activity.

Grade Levels
7th Grade
Subject Areas
Science, Visual Arts
NC Standards Correlations
7.P.2.1, 7.P.2.4
7.RP.1.1, 7.TT.1.3
Visual Arts
7.V.1.2, 7.V.2.1, 7.V.3.2

Artwork Related to this Lesson

Student Learning Objectives

  1. Examine how products (art, technology, etc.) are developed to solve problems as a result of demands, values, and interests of consumers and businesses.
  2. Work collaboratively toward a common goal.
  3. Explain the energy process as it relates to mechanical movement using terminology as it relates to concepts found in the study of simple machines.
  4. Apply the engineering and design process to solve a problem through research and experimentation.
  5. Integrate the principles of design into the engineering and design process to integrate personal identity and expression into their work.
  6. Students will evaluate existing solutions to problems (both artistic and scientific) to create innovative solutions to their own problem.
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Unit Overview

Week 1 is about team building and identity. Students will work together on various challenges and study of structures. This week students will begin to learn about Vollis Simpson and form their own style and identity. See the handout or Lesson Resources section for descriptions of these activities.

  • Introduction to Engineering and Design process – Day 1

 Form teams

Card Tower

  • Marshmallow Challenge– Day 2
  • Stronger Card Tower – Day 3
  • Begin Study of Vollis Simpson using VTS strategies – Day 4
  • Team Logo – Day 5

Check Point 1- Students should have completed their team logo and have evidence of using the engineering and design process in their activities from the week.

Week 2 is about beginning the Engineering and Design process for the development of the students’ kinetic sculpture. Students will be using the E&D process worksheet as a framework for developing their project proposals. This week will be spent Identifying the problem, constraints, and imagining (brainstorming) different options to their problems. Students will be working from the wikispace as they begin to study Vollis Simpson’s work, simple machines, and computer aided design. As students complete each section on the E&D process worksheet they must have it approved by the teacher before moving to the next section.

  • Explore the Wind Machine and complete the Ask step of the E&D worksheet – Day 1 (Ask)
  • Students brainstorm at least two possibilities to address the problem that fit the identified constraints. Students will sketch their ideas using the principles of design. (Imagine)- Day 2
  • Students select the best option from the Imagine step and begin modeling in Autodesk 123D Design and consider material choices and constraints – Day 3 ( Plan)
  • Students will continue to develop the sculptures general form while deciding what is required to create the desired movement. Research about the location of the proposed site for the sculpture needs to be included in the planning process. – Day 4 and 5 (Plan)

Check Point 2 – Students should have a completed 3D Model in the CAD software and should be beginning to workout detailed pieces of the model. Students should be able to begin construction at this point. Materials selected by the students should be approved by the teacher before permitting them to bring them to school. Encourage using recycled materials. – End of Week 2

**Note Students in my class have access to a 3D Printer and CNC machine, while this is nice it is not necessary for this lesson.**

Week 3 is devoted to the create phase of the project. Students will have to have reached check point 1 and have been approved to proceed to the create phase.

  • Students will begin Create phase of the project upon completion and check off of their plan. Students can begin to fabricate parts necessary to build their projects. 
  • As students work in the create phase they need to be creating a list of materials being used for each part of the prototype and consider what to use for a full size sculpture.
  • Students will continue to refine their sculpture as they begin to test physical parts of their sculpture (Improve)

Week 4 is for completion of the sculpture and finalizing the project proposal for the team.

  • Students will finalize the assembly of their sculpture and make sure everything works
  • Project proposal presentations need to be finalized to include how they have created a solution to the problems identified and how they have operated within constraints.
  • Students will present their project proposals to a panel –Day 20

Written by John Scarfpin


Weekly checkpoints

Final presentation of project proposal scored according to the rubric

Lesson Resources



Day 1

Introduction to Engineering and Design Powerpoint and using the Decision matrix to test options (20 min)

Activity: Card tower (25 min)


100 pack of index cards per team of 4

One copy of Decision Matrix per team

Meter stick

Class challenge is to use the pack of index cards to build the tallest card tower possible.

Teacher Notes

The only intended constraints are time (25 min) and the number of cards(100). Do not prevent students from folding or tearing cards but do not tell students to fold or tear either. Let them struggle until they succeed. Encourage student to use their decision matrix to document the pros and cons of what they have tried. Take measurements as students announce they have finished and write them on the board with the ranking of heights. Update the numbers as the student continue to try and out do the other teams.

Day 2

To reinforce the Engineering and Design process and to continue team building students will be completing the Marshmallow Challenge

Activity: Marshmallow Challenge (25 min)


Meter Stick

Count down timer projected on the board set to 18 minutes

Each team of four will need the following

Decision Matrix

20 Sticks of Spaghetti

1 meter of 1/2” masking tape

1 meter of string

1 large marshmallow

Teams are given 18 minutes to build the tallest free standing spaghetti tower they can that will support the marshmallow at the top.

Teacher notes: Encourage the use of the decision matrix to create a quick plan. They should sketch some ideas for the tower framing. The original website and TED talk can be found at: 

Debrief this activity by discussing the results of the structures and the team dynamics.

Day 3

Continuing to create team unity and understanding the Engineering and Design process at work students will be combining the previous two activities. Today’s marshmallow is a 2 to 3 pound textbook. Students will reengineer their card tower experience to be tall and hold a load. The goal is to construct the tallest card tower that is capable of supporting a small textbook.

Activity: Tall and Strong Card Tower (40 min)


Meter stick

Each team will need the following

Decision Matrix

100 Index Cards

Small text book (Each team should have the same book)

Teacher Notes: Students will want to reassemble the tower they did on day 1 right away. Encourage them to rethink their towers for the new constraint and to test the load bearing capacity frequently rather than waiting to the end. As with the other activities write the current place holders on the board to encourage working toward the tallest structure.

Day 4

Introduce students to the wikispace. Today they will begin to study the Vollis Simpson Wind machine as well as the life of Vollis Simpson to gain an understanding of kinetic sculpture.  Student will explore the contents of the wikispace to include the challenge, CAD/CAM videos, Simple Machine videos, and other related content. Teams will decide on the roles each member will fulfill as Project Manager, Accountant, CAD Programmer, and Promoter. All students are ultimately responsible for the construction and delivery of a working prototype.

Use VTS to study Vollis Simpson

Day 5

Teams will begin to develop a logo for their team and research successful branding. Students should brainstorm different designs to try and capture the identity of the group. Teams will want to consider how their team identity will be reflected in the final structure

Day 6

Students will explore simple machines and try to identify simple machines present in the Vollis Simpson Wind Machine and how they are used.  Students will complete simple machines investigation by calculating the IMA and conducting experiments to find the AMA at stations around the room.

Activity: Simple Machines Investigation

Levers Station

Gears Station

Pully Station

Incline plane station

Wheel and axle station

Day 7

Students will be using the Engineering and Design worksheet to begin the development of their project proposal. They will use the decision matrix to brainstorm options for the beginnings of their structure by identifying the constraints and researching the location of the display site. Students should be encouraged to begin 3D modeling of their structure immediately.  This will give them some idea of spatial locations of parts, proportions and provide a visual of what they want to work toward.

Day 7-10 Students should be going back and forth between Imagine and Plan in the engineering and design process for each piece they are integrating into their sculpture. Between their decision matrix documents and the Autodesk modeling students should be able to create a plan for approval to move to fabrication of parts.


Engineering and Design process in alignment with the NC STEM Rubric

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