Introduction: Quick & Fun Engineering Projects

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These mini projects are designed to add flexibility to your repertoire of lesson plans. Each project requires almost no preparation, can be quickly explained, and uses minimal materials. It's perfect for engaging a student who finishes his or her main project very early, or conduct several of these projects in one lesson rather than focusing on one big project.

You can find the lesson plan, 1-page project sheet, and more project ideas at

Step 1: Tops



Tops can be made by inserting a piece of a bamboo skewer through the center of a plastic wheel. But it doesn't have to stop there. What if the skewer is longer or shorter? What if you add more wheels? How does having the wheels higher up on the skewer vs. lower affect the performance? Is it possible to add to the top without disrupting it's balance? There is a surprising amount of room for experimentation!

For added longevity, encourage your students to make a top that can out-spin all the others. Make competitions official by building a simple structure to contain the tops to a small area. The arena can be 3x3 or 4x4 sticks as well.

Bending the tip of the skewer will cause the top to jitter and move unpredictably.

Limit the number of wheels your students can use to 5 and encourage them to redesign rather than make completely new ones

Step 2: Straw Planes and Paper Aircraft

Here are two simple and high performing paper aircraft, as well as an unusual flyer.

The Nakamura Lock - A plane that everyone should know
The Acrobat - Very reliable and stable. Can perform loops, or gracefully glide
Straw plane

It is just as important to trim your paper plane as it is to fold it well and choose a good design. Trimming the plane means making adjustments to improve flight performance. For example, if the nose of the plane is diving downward too soon, try bending the tailing edge of the wings upward a little bit. This will produce more lift. If the plane is tilting sideways and crashing, try bending the wings upwards a bit so that the plane has more of a 'V' shape than a 'T' shape when looking at it head-on. This improves stability.

You can take this a step further by adding a paperclip hook to the nose of the plane and then use a slingshot to launch it!

Step 3: The Paper Weight Challenge

This is an open-ended challenge that requires no setup and only a sheet of paper, tape, and something heavy (such as a box of craft sticks or a textbook).

The challenge: Using only a sheet of paper and 2' of tape, students must design a structure that can hold a weight at least 4 inches off of the ground for at least 10 seconds without any external support.


  • Scissors may be used, but only for cutting the paper, not for structural support.
  • Students may not combine materials if they work in a group.
  • Students may try as many times as they'd like

The solution: There is more than one solution, but the simplest and most elegant is to simply fold a piece of paper in half lengthwise, then tape the ends together to create a cylinder. Other shapes, such as a box, have straight sides that can fold easily. However a cylinder is very strong because it distributes the weight evenly throughout its entire shape, and it does not have flat sides that can fold easily.

Another solution that is outside of the box is to use the tape to simply attach the weight to a tabletop and suspend it above the ground!

Step 4: Craft Stick Bombs

This explosive project is created by tightly weaving craft sticks together so that it is held in place without adhesives. If one stick slips out of place, the whole assembly will fall apart, or even appear to explode. The energy that creates the explosive effect comes from the stored energy held in a bent craft stick.

Tip: For bigger and more reliable explosions, make sure that at least two sticks in the weave are barely connected. This will make it easier for the stick bomb to rapidly come apart.

There are a few different craft stick bomb designs:

Classic 5 stick design

stick variation

6 stick weave (more difficult)

Do not allow students to throw the stick bombs at each other. If you see a student holding a stick bomb close to their face, tell them to hold it farther away because it can explode spontaneously.

You may want to bring a pair of pliers. Young children (grades 1-3) often have difficulty holding the 5 stick weave together during construction.