Cantilever Spans Supplies / Cost



For those of you that have been in my trainings or read about our cantilever spans lessons, and wondered about supplies for them, I recently ordered 100 pounds of washers ( two 50 pound boxes – about 2200 washers total) and 1,000 paint stir sticks (or really as I found out paint “paddles“) and today they came in.



WasherBoxThe washers cost $254.00 ($127 per box) and 1,000 paint paddles printed on one side were $125. (NOTE: blank paddles were about $85 per 1,000). The washers we purchased locally at R&E Fasteners in bulk. The paint paddles we purchased from American Paint Paddle Company.

You don’t need this many for just one class. This is enough washers to make at least 3 class sets of washers – that’s 8 bags of washers per class (1500 grams per bag – around 75-85 washers) 1,000 paint paddles is enough to make 66 sets of 15 per set (That’s enough for 8 classes)

(These numbers are based on 8 groups of 2 – 4 students, per class – so a class of 32)

This is a typical set for a group of 4 students along with a tape measure and data recording sheet to keep track of length measurements.

This is a typical set for a group of 2 – 4 students along with a tape measure and data recording sheet to keep track of length measurements. 1500 grams of washers is a usable, general amount, enough to build a structure, but limited enough to encourage re-engineering to strive for more length. However, depending on circumstances, we sometimes allow more to almost unlimited amounts.

(NOTE: In the past we have gotten paint paddles for free from one of the big box hardware stores I won’t mention here (*see bottom of page). Not wanting to count on always being able to get free paint paddles we checked into the cost (see above), which is fairly doable if the free option isn’t available. The materials should last for a long, long time as well, there isn’t a repeated cost every time you do the activity.

The washers are fairly expensive, about 11 cents each if my math is correct, so we are always on the lookout for a free or really cheap alternative. Please share any ideas you might have.

Remember – much more on this lesson available here – cantilever spans lessons.


Learning is messy!




  • Home Depot is the place …  Lowes, and other stores’ paint paddles tend to be warped, not straight, we’ve tried them all. So you can ask at your local Home Depot – we’ve had success when we explain what we are using them for.

New STEM Lessons / Activities Wiki



Per request I recently set up a new wiki page as a kind of “clearinghouse” of the different STEM lessons and activities I write about on this blog and elsewhere to make them easier to find. I’ll update it regularly and perhaps add support links for the different lessons as well. There is also a link to the wiki on this blog under the link at the top of this page “STEM Lessons/Activities.”

Learning is messy!

NASA Pathway to Space – Drone Edition

Rockets and High Altitude Ballooning Yet To Come

PathwaystoSpace2015_Inservice_pdf I announced the NASA Pathway to Space class for teachers about a month ago:

“Starting next week a team of educators (including me) will be providing a class for local teachers of grades 3rd – 12th which will include hands-on training in building and flying drones, rockets, planes and designing payloads which we will then launch on a high altitude balloon to somewhere between 65,000 to 100,000 feet.”

I mentioned at the time how, along with the training, teachers would receive a drone (UAV) and build and keep another as part of the class. The first 4 classes focused on drones. Not just building and flying them, but on the laws and ethics that teachers and students must take into account in using them.

Below: Kirk Ellern from “AboveNV” explains some of the rules and laws around drone or UAV use. DSCF0289


Above: Participants getting the hang of flying their new drones (cost just less than $50 including remote). 

Learning to fly the little drones is actually more difficult than the larger ones which is why Kirk Ellern and Rob Dunbar from AboveNV suggested using them. “If you can control one of these little fairly indestructible guys, piloting the larger ones is relatively easy.”


Next, each participant built a “chuck” plane from a kit – so named because you throw or “chuck” it to make it airborne. However, these planes are designed to have a motor, remote control and more added to them if one wishes to do so.


Teachers building their planes, YouTube videos demonstrate each step of the building process.



















Above: A first flight

So they’d be ready to fly larger drones they were given time with flight simulator software.

We designed this class so that we meet on 2 to 3 Tuesday evenings to learn about and build drones, rockets, balloon payloads and then on a Saturday to fly what we’ve learned about and built. We were ready now for our “Drone Saturday” – so we met on a soccer field at a local high school and thanks to “AboveNV” and friends bringing multiple drones of all sizes we learned about and flew drones for hours. This included flying some while wearing goggles that see through a camera on the drone, so you are flying the drone like you are onboard.






We really lucked out in that there was not a puff of wind all morning which made it easy to fly all the different sizes and types of UAV’s (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) we had available. Here’s a link to all the photos from our “Drone Saturday.”

Up next is rockets!

Learning is messy!

Flying In Circles


Last year at the NSTA STEM Forum in Minneapolis, we saw Art Ellis demonstrate this great flying inquiry lesson using inexpensive store bought balsa wood model planes … you know, the kind you may have had as a kid. Art gave us his blessing to share the lesson … so once we got the chance … well here it is!

We also used a plastic bucket from a hardware store (about $2.75), a wood block (about 4 x 4 inches – 1 to 2 inches thick – we actually used round ones we got as scrap), a washer about the size of a quarter, a few small paper clips and 1 OR 2 meters of thin string. 1 meter, if like us, we were flying in a narrow hallway, 2 meters if you have a larger space to fly in.


We screwed the block of wood to the top of an overturned 5 gallon plastic bucket (photo below is of metal can we tried things out on) the quarter sized washer. Next we tied a loop in each end of the string and attached one of the paper clips to each end. (add about 15 centimeters to the length of the string to take into account making the loops on each end – try to get the length as close to exactly 1 or 2 meters as possible)


Following the directions printed on the plane’s package assemble your plane.


Then attach The other end of the string to the wing by taping the paper clip to the wing.

Then put about 125 winds on the rubber band, set it on the ground and the result is the video this post started with.

Because you know the length of the string you know the radius of the circle it flies. Therefore students can figure out length of flight. During flight the number of circles it completes can be counted and adjustments can be made (engineering) to the plane and how the rubber band is wound to achieve a longer flight. Using a stopwatch the amount of time the plane is airborne can be checked and again with adjustments a longer time airborne is the goal. 

In addition students can add components using tape and other materials attached to the wing and tail edges to experiment with how they can control the flight. 

Next you can purchase material to make your own higher strength rubber bands that can be wound many more times to add length and speed to flights.


We’re just getting started with this inquiry activity … we presented it to teachers a few weeks back and they loved it. As we gain more experience I’ll pass along new learning possibilities.

Learning is messy!

As Promised …. Cantilevers With Students



In my last post, where I tried out including an art component to this powerful engineering problem with cantilevers on teachers, I explained that as soon as I could try it out with students I would get back about how it worked. Fortunately one of the teachers in that training volunteered his class.

The first challenge 5th grade students received today in Dan Scurlock’s class is seen to the right:

As always students are given as little explanation about how to build a cantilever as possible. I use one paint stick and one washer and show them how you can get more length off the end of the table with the washer on the end. That’s it … now it’s all up to them. Students worked in pairs. I lent a camera to each pair to archive their progress. Link to Flickr set of their photos.


In addition they collected measurement data each time they added length to their span with a measuring tape … measurements in centimeters.


They worked initially for about 20 minutes. There was lots of “messy learning” as students learned about the materials (washers and paint stir sticks). Crashes to the floor were followed by a mix of disappointment and excitement.

Untitled At the end of the first 20 minutes each pair was given a large “sticky note” to post the data from the longest span they had engineered. DSCF0182






We displayed these on the board and then after some discussion (I’m not sharing it all here for brevity, but the debrief is a powerful aspect) the students decided it would be a good idea to order the data from least to greatest. So we did:


Next we did a “gallery walk” around the room so students could check out the designs others had come up with, and we had them point out design features that seemed to lead to longer spans.

Now that students had some experience with building spans, I had them take what they had learned and asked them to try to build even longer spans. They enthusiastically got back to work … a few adjusted spans that were still standing from the first experience, but most started over from scratch.

It was apparent right away that they had learned not just techniques, but confidence too.


After an additional 20 minutes or so we collected their data on a different color sticky note, posted them and compared results:DSCF0520

When asked to compare the data, students noted how the shortest span from the second experience was almost as long as the longest from the first. The data is rich with analysis possibilities (that I won’t go into now, but may add later, especially if you bug me, 🙂 ) and I can share from doing this numerous times that 90cm is short of the longest spans students have accomplished (even K/1st graders will build longer spans given repeated experiences).

We used this data sheet to begin figuring out how much their cantilever span would cost if you set a price for materials (easily made grade level specific by changing the numbers used), but I wanted them to figure out what to do with the data themselves and we didn’t have time … and Dan was excited about the prospect of crunching that data later when they had time to really go deep with it. NOTE: This photo doesn’t show the last line that asks for cost per centimeter.DSCF0058Lots and lots more to do … more investigations trying to make their spans longer …. other ways to analyze data … how to construct the most “cost effective” span and more. But not today.

The STEAM Challenge: And then I explained the word “aesthetics” and how often designs and products and architecture incorporate aesthetics to make them beautiful and even more functional. I used my iPhone and a box that pens came in as an example … “… the box and phone are about the same size, and the box shape takes no real extra, possibly expensive, design time and effort, but the rounded corners and thin profile and other aspects of the iPhone make it more visually appealing (“cooler”), easier to hold, easier to put in your pocket (etc.) ….”

“Now your challenge is to build a structure that is still a cantilever, but how long it reaches off the table is not as important as how “aesthetically pleasing” … how beautiful it is. I’ll even supply you with extra materials if you run out before your structure is finished.” (Note, as students “finished” their structures, one extra challenge I gave them was to see how far off the table they could really get it … and they had fun pushing the limits until it crashed to the floor. NOTE: students had been working now for over 90 minutes and it might have been best to stop here if not earlier – but I wasn’t going to be able to come back soon, and Dan really wanted them to have this experience. But when I was done explaining this investigation it re-energized the class … they were very enthusiastic about jumping back in. Here are some of the results:






This group was super excited when they figured out theirs was transportable! 🙂 DSCF0514

I just happen to be shooting a photo of this one when it collapsed!  Untitled

Imagine if students had more than 20 minutes and/or re-visted this experience on other days!

Check out more examples by following the link above to their Flickr set as well as this one and this one.

Before I left I explained that I would leave all the materials with them for a few weeks so they could continue their investigations. Cheers ensued. Dan said he would share more photos and feedback on what they did AND he suspected other teachers (some had even stuck their heads in to see what was going on) just might want to borrow them as well.

Learning is messy!

Exploring STEAM Education

Here's what happened - IT WAS AWESOME!

I announced in my previous post about my upcoming involvement in a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ART and Math) day at the Nevada Museum of Art. I was trying out a new idea to integrate art into what before had been strictly a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) inquiry lesson utilizing cantilever spans (the lesson is explained here).


The original lesson was built on the work of Ken Wesson who gave Lou Loftin (my frequent collaborator in PD delivery)  the original idea of using cantilever construction as an inquiry piece. He encouraged us to “go with it” and we have. We report back to Ken whenever we see him about how awesome the cantilever spans experience is. He usually just beams and encourages us to keep promoting it and innovating with it. Ken, by the way, is a great speaker, I’ve seen several of his keynotes and he brings the house down!

My idea to add the art component to the lesson was this: We started out following the original introductory lesson, pass out the materials and challenge the participants to build as long a span with those materials as possible (in groups of 2 to 3) … the difference was on this day that I only gave them 5 minutes to build. I mainly wanted to give them some experience with the materials and building a span AND to have them experience the STEM version even a tiny bit. We debriefed their experiences, I described the multiple ways to continue and leverage the lesson (which can go for days or weeks BTW) and then I changed the challenge … the focus:

“This time when you build your cantilever span your total focus is to be on the aesthetics of the span. It doesn’t matter how far out from the edge of the table it reaches, as long as it does, …make it beautiful, creative … GO!

I was pretty sure this was going to elicit some creative structures … I way under estimated … the designs, even in the limited time we had (15-20 minutes) were fantastic! Here are just a few examples:






































See what I mean?  There are just too many to post … but here is a link to all of them on Flickr.

I had four groups of educators cycle through the 50 minute lesson during the day. When I debriefed them each group spoke about how they loved the creativity aspect. We would always make time for a “gallery walk” during each session and many noted how they were so focused on what they were creating that they didn’t even notice what those all around them were doing until we did the walk. Many took photos and asked questions and conversations began about the process … unfortunately we always had to cut those conversations short. We did discuss the writing, math, research and other integrations and connections … including collaborating with classrooms anywhere in the world, that should happen along with the STEM or STEAM version of this or any lesson.

If you’ve already experienced cantilevers with your students I fervently suggest going back and having them experience this “art” connection variation. If you’ve never done it I suggest having your students build long spans for awhile (days or weeks) and then after they have experience with the materials try the aesthetics piece (but certainly do it any way you and they want … just a suggestion) I can’t wait to get into some classrooms and try this with students! Reminder: The cantilevers lesson is appropriate for ALL students Pre-K – 12. When I do get into classrooms I’ll report back! If you beat me to it, please share your experience!!

Learning is messy!

Exploring STEAM Education

Through Resilience and Design

When I was approached months ago about being part of this STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ART, and Math) training at the Nevada Museum of Art this Saturday I jumped at it.STEAM_teacher_training_flyer_winter_2016-3_pdf There are close to 100 teachers registered and a waiting list … apparently there is a an unmet demand – who’da thunk> 🙂

Cheryl Barton will be kicking things off with her keynote, “The Theory of Here.”

To tie-in to Cheryl’s work I’m doing a hands-on lesson with cantilever spans that I’m adding an aesthetics component to that I’m excited about. I’ll be doing it 4 times during the day and have to fit it into 50 minute periods … I’ll let you know how it goes.

Learning will be messy!

The “Teacher in Space” – Still Touching the Future

Christa McAuliffe and The Space Shuttle Challenger

I’ve seen numerous “tweets” today, on the 30th anniversary of the event, from people sharing where they were when they witnessed or heard about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. I was teaching 7th grade in Oakland, California, and our principal called my classroom to make me aware of what had happened since we weren’t watching live. We tuned in and watched the coverage for awhile and then discussed what had happened. The fact that Christa McAuliffe, the “Teacher in Space,” was a crew member added layers and significance to the discussion.

Twenty some years later my class had the privilege of having Grace Corrigan, Christa’s mom, visit our classroom. (the link takes you to a post about that day)grace4.jpg

We only had one day to prepare for her visit so we learned a bit about Christa and the history of the Challenger, including watching video of the tragic liftoff, but then spent the rest of our limited time writing questions to ask her. We were told Grace would love to answer questions so that’s what we focused on. What to ask and what not to ask  … what is appropriate and not. It was a more powerful learning experience than I expected and the students (4th graders) did a great job. Earlier in the year we had worked hard on speaking up and not showing nervousness, as much as possible anyhow, and that really paid off. You can read about the day we had – here and here

One of our major takeaway’s however was realizing how much we learned about incorporating technology just as part of how we learn and work. When my class first went 1:1 with laptops … it was all about the laptops and what they could do … they were a shiny, bright object students couldn’t stop staring at. But now, however, because they had easy access and used them routinely, the technology had become more like a pencil … just things we use when needed without thinking about them much. And that was true of the other technologies and applications we commonly used – video-conferencing, cameras, blogs, wikis. The shiny-ness and bright-ness hadn’t totally worn off, but now more often than not, partly because of ubiquitous use, they are just powerful tools we utilize in our learning.

As part of Grace’s visit students researched the questions they were writing and wrote them out on their laptops and our printer. We shared her visit live on Skype (audio only) with collaborators in Virginia and New York. We recorded and posted her visit as a podcast and video-cast (I recently changed internet providers and will have to re-post those at some point). Students took the photos that illustrate this post and the other posts I’ve linked to. And, as we often did, we blogged about the experience as part of a process of debriefing and archiving learning we were finding valuable. GraceCorBlogPost


We did all those things not so we could use the technologies, but because using the technologies helped us learn and made it possible to share and collaborate on our learning globally.

An incredible learning experience meant for 28 students broke through the walls of the classroom that day.

A great day and way to learn and share about history and science! (and so much more) Christa’s legacy and message continue to “touch the future.”

Learning is messy!

NASA Pathway to Space Class


Starting next week a team of educators (including me) will be providing a class for local teachers of grades 3 – 12 which will include hands-on training in building and flying drones, rockets, planes and designing payloads which we will then launch on a high altitude balloon to somewhere between 65,000 to 100,000 feet. The class filled in one day.

This is the second NASA Pathway to Space class we have offered, but the first to include drones. Last year’s class included rockets, planes, tissue balloons and a high altitude balloon experience as well.

We love providing Professional Development like this where we not only train teachers in the building and flying of the various “vehicles” – but also provide them with the materials and support to make it happen with their students as well. Teachers will either get their own drone as part of the class, or be able to check one out depending on our funding, but also planes, rockets and a balloon launch their students can utilize to send payloads they design up to near space.

Funding for the class came from a NASA Space Grant that includes funding for a second class next fall – so local educators watch for the announcement for that class, probably in late summer. Lots of hands-on messy learning for both teachers and students … my kind of class! 🙂

Learning is messy!

Solid Professional Development + ALL the Materials to Implement Powerfully = Student Learning

The PD We Need

One of the major downsides of 15 years of NCLB and RTTT has been the silo-ing and narrowing out of subjects, especially in elementary schools, and brutally so in the most “at risk” schools. Beside students missing out on the most engaging subjects, after 15 years of NCLB and RTTT, the basic and  support materials for subjects like science, and therefore STEM, have either long since been thrown out, or are painfully out of date.

Throw in the Next Generation Science Standards that have been adopted by my state that (thankfully) are performance based standards … standards that cannot in any way be met by reading about them and answering questions or taking a multiple choice test (YES!!!) … standards that require students TO DO science and engineering and then be assessed via being able to model or in other ways demonstrate their learning. Even the state assessments are being designed (supposedly, hopefully) so students have to model and demonstrate learning instead of bubbling answers.

I remember only too well during my 30+ years as a classroom teacher the frustration in receiving professional development (PD) in language arts, math, science, art and pretty much every other subject, and being supplied the necessary materials for myself during the training, only to be told at the end of the day that, “We don’t have the supplies you need to take back to your students, but maybe you can talk your principal or PTA into funding the materials you need to do these great activities in your own school and classroom. Good luck!!”

With that in mind we work hard to write grants to fund not just the PD we deliver in STEM, but also to provide ALL the needed supplies and materials to implement the lessons and activities in the classroom. Teachers consistently give us feedback on how much that means to them and how much more successful they are at providing quality learning experiences for their students when they are not spending valuable time begging and rummaging for resources.

Unfortunately we are not always successful, we are too often told that the grant would have supported the PD, but monies have already been allocated to schools for books and materials and they have to provide that themselves (did I mention my state is too close to 50th every year in supporting education with resources?) so we are not funding your grant at all, or only the part involved in delivering the PD.

Fortunately, we have from time to time been successful at receiving grants that fund the PD AND required supplies. Recently we received just such a grant (but got turned down for an even bigger one for the very reason stated above).

Another issue that diminishes the impact of PD is when it is not grade level specific. Certainly not all PD has to be grade level specific, but what we have found over the years, is that especially in subjects like science and STEM (and art, PE and others too to varying degrees) that teachers have so little content knowledge and experience in teaching them (again thanks NCLB/RTTT) that they struggle taking PD in those subjects back to the classroom successfully if the examples and lessons demonstrated and experienced are not mostly specific to their grade.

The good news is the grant we received this fall, and we started delivering PD for this week, is both grade level specific AND supplies the necessary materials AND includes several follow-up day long trainings during the year.  It doesn’t get much better than that. PD We started with 2nd grade teachers on Monday teaching them about the materials they were receiving to use with their students and what to do with them … but at the end of the day we walked them into our warehouse and they picked up boxes and plastic containers of materials and a literacy component and links to a support wiki page and Flickr photo site we will build during their trainings and year long classroom experiences … the smiles were wide. Supplies

And then, get this, they get the consumable supplies that they use up replenished each year by us … they don’t have to take the time or expense to do that … just focus on the lessons and the learning.

This is the PD teachers need. It’s a model we’ve found to be successful, now we have to get the decision makers to buy in.

This scenario will repeat itself through 2 cohorts this year for every grade level K – 7 (hoping to go Pre-K – 12 next year (note that grant folks – teachers need the materials too!!!). And all teachers trained get access to all the materials for at least the next few years.

Learning is messy!