Introduction: Powerful Triangles and Spheres: Paper Plate Buckyballs - 1st Grade Tinkering - Week 7

"Powerful Triangles and Spheres: Paper Plate Buckyballs" is the seventh lesson in a 10 week Tinkering series offered to first grade students. Using everyday materials in open-ended projects, we transform the ordinary to the extraordinary while nurturing problem solving skills, building creative confidence, encouraging collaboration, and empowering students as agents of their own success.

What is tinkering? Tinkering is experimenting with ideas, tools and materials to discover the myriad of possibilities that everyday objects can hold. Tinkering allows us to invent marvelous creations through working with our hands, persevering through setbacks, and engaging with others in creative collaboration. Tinkering is "thinking with our hands." Why tinkering? Thanks to smart phones, video games, and good ol' TV, too much of our kids' world is virtual and their experiences are largely vicarious. Tinkering allows for empowered, active learning. It is real interaction with real objects, real tools, and real people.

DESCRIPTION: In this lesson, students will learn about another favorite tinkerer, Buckminster Fuller, artist, architect, designer, and inventor. A teacher and friend of Ruth Asawa, Fuller's unconventional "geodesic dome" design revolutionized architecture. Students will create a 20-sided geodesic sphere by folding circular paper plates into interlocking triangles to form a sphere.


  • Introduce students to the work of Buckminster Fuller as inspiration for tinkering
  • Explore the use of 2-dimensional triangles to create a 3-dimensional sphere
  • Develop perseverance and creative confidence through experiential Tinkering activity
  • Encourage speaking and listening skills in group discussion

Step 1: Materials & Introduction - 10 Minutes


  • 6-inch paper plates (the thin, white, inexpensive ones) - 20+ per student
  • 5-inch equilateral triangle folding template cut from matte board - 1 per student
  • Stapler

INTRODUCTION & DEMO (students on the rug) - 5 minutes

(Note to readers: For suggestions on guided conversations that introduce students to the idea of TINKERING, please see my Instructable "FLOWERS FROM MARS", which is week 1 of a 10-week tinkering curriculum)

Begin with the Tinkering motto call and response: "When we Tinker ... we think with our hands." and we make this gesture (Wiggle fingers at your temple and move them outward). Explain to kids to imagine that their hands are holding all their ideas and when you wiggle your fingers it's like letting the ideas come out from your brain.

Inform students that today they're going to learn about another favorite tinkerer, artist, architect, innovator, and futurist Buckminster Fuller (Bucky). Share the attached images with the students and explain to them that Bucky liked to envision designs that could make people's lives better. His Dymaxion car could carry 11 passengers, travel up to 120 miles per hour, and got 30 miles per gallon. With his Dymaxion house, and even a special project with Walt Disney for a community of the future, Bucky sought to create affordable stylish housing for all.

Bucky's most famous design used two of his favorite shapes, the triangle and the sphere. (If students have yet to study 3-D shapes, offer a brief explanation of spheres). Triangles are very strong shapes when they are placed together and when pieced together in a certain way, it becomes a very strong dome, or sphere that uses not too many natural resources and can be made very large. (Show picture of Epcot center). Share that today, students will work together to create their own Buckyball spheres.

Introduce TOOLS and MATERIALS:

MATERIALS - The main material we are using today are paper plates and we will transform them into triangles to create our spheres. Through the folding and stapling, we will create a 3-D object from a 2-D material.

TOOLS - Remember that are things we use to help us make, build and create. Today's tools are our folding triangle and staplers.

Step 2: Demonstration (5 Minutes)

Demonstrate to students how to use the folding triangle template. With the template centered on the plate, use one hand to hold it still and the other hand to crease each side. Remove the template and strengthen each crease by rubbing with a finger a second time.

Have students fold at least 5 plates before beginning to staple together. To make a sphere, students should piece together 5 triangles into a star pattern. Make a 2nd star pattern and then piece together 10 triangles in a long row. The long row should be stapled like a "belt" with the two star pattern circles on the top and bottom. As always, students are also free to explore the materials as they wish and can also piece together the triangles in free-form geometry.

Remind them of the rules: There is no "WRONG" in Tinkering, but there are a few rules:

1 - RESPECT the Materials and Tools - Use tools properly, be mindful to use materials wisely, not wastefully. Use the stapler with care, and if you run out of staples, as an adult to help re-load it.

2 - RESPECT your classmates - share materials, share tools. Be encouraging! Work together!

3- RESPECT yourself - always try your hardest. It's OK to feel frustrated, but keep working and keep trying. Be PROUD of what you do.

Step 3: Tinkering Time - 25 Minutes

Encourage students to work together. Many will find that it's easier for one student to hold the plates while the second student staples. A collaboration that comes out of necessity will soon become a collaboration by choice. Watch for students working together to build their spheres (or other shapes) and celebrate their teamwork.

Step 4: Clean Up & Reflection (10 Minutes)

Clean Up:

Cleaning up after ourselves is an important part of Tinkering. Students should return unused materials to their proper containers and check under the desks for materials that may have fallen.

Reflection Time:

In a circle on the rug, students can bring what they've created to share in a facilitated dialogue about the tinkering experience. "When we tinker, it's good to share our ideas and the things we discovered with each other." "It's important that only one person talks at a time and they we give respect to each other."

During reflection, prompt students to reflect on frustrations students may have experienced trying to make a perfect sphere. Commend students for creating interesting geometric forms even if they aren't spheres. Remind students that open exploration sometimes takes us places we may not expect, but we can always appreciate where we end up!

End with the phrase & gesture. "When we tinker, we think with our hands."