Engineering for the Three Little Pigs

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder Geoffrey Hill, Tim Nicklas, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Janet Yowell
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Lesson/Lesson Plan , Experiment/Lab Activity , Activity
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This activity helps to demonstrate the importance of rocks, soils, and minerals in engineering and how using the right material for the right job is important. The students build 3 different sand castles composed of varying amounts of sand, water, and glue. The 'buildings' in this lesson are made of sand and glue, sand being a soil and glue being composed of different minerals.They then test them for strength (load bearing), and resistance to weathering. The students will then compare possible solutions and discuss how well each is likely to work while meeting the criteria and constraints of the problem. The students will be the engineers who figure out which materials are best for the buildings they are making, taking into consideration all the properties of materials that are discussed in the lesson.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Upper Elementary
  • Grade 5
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 3
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

4-ESS3-2 Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural Earth processes on humans.

Clarification Statement: Examples of solutions could include designing an earthquake resistant building and improving monitoring of volcanic activity.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
In this lesson students compare multiple solutions to the problem of how to build a model house that can withstand various weather simulations. As the students are testing their structures, it is important for the teacher to ask questions as the students record observations. Ask them what does the water from the watering can represent? (rain or other precipitation.) Have students pour enough water from the watering can to show flooding as well as rain. To control the amount of water as it pours from the watering can, it is suggested that students be given a specific amount to fill their cans to so that each group will have the same amount of 'rain'. Also suggested is that the students are more aggressive with their 'rain' so it is more in line with 'flooding'. Students will then test to see which building/structure will hold up the best to weight (the brick that is placed on the buildings represents the weight of people, furniture and other objects [loads] that the structure must hold up). Engineers often test buildings by adding more weight to them than would be expected.

3-5-ETS1-2 Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The problem the students are faced with is finding the best materials that will hold up under erosion and weathering. Before beginning the activity the criteria and constraints must be clearly identified. Each of the sample buildings the students make will follow the same proportion of ingredients. To further enhance the activity, the students can brainstorm other ingredients for their building that they would like to retest.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
It may be beneficial to ask the students after they have completed the activities what they could think of that may improve their buildings strength if they could do the project again testing other materials. So that the students are 'generating' the solutions, they should be given time for a fourth building design so they can compare their solution to the others that they already tested. They may want to try pebbles and rocks or other items that they brainstorm together as a group. This will enable them to engage in the 'improve stage' of the Engineering Design, which is where significant learning occurs.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The introduction and motivation to the lesson includes ideas for class discussion about the properties of the resources that are used to build safe, strong structures that are also appealing and cost conscious. Linking this to real-world phenomena and including more discussion about natural disasters and severe weather conditions would enhance this Disciplinary Core Idea.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Discuss with the students how engineers must constantly weigh the pros and cons of each design (price, availability of materials) to come up with the best design that will stand up to weathering and erosion. Included in the lesson is a post assessment where cost is calculated and the materials are given a price. Students then have specific constraints to add to their design process. The post assessment is also a great inclusion of the Common Core math curriculum.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
In the pre-activity assessment and the embedded activity assessment, student discuss the properties of various minerals found on the Earth that will best support the weight of the brick and the material that will best hold up under rain. Although the students are shaping the materials into the little cups, shaping of the materials is not discussed in this lesson. The lesson could be extended by discussing with the students why they are packing the sand into the cups. What does this represent? Do the properties change with the sand in the cup vs having the sand sit on the table in a ball?

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This activity allows the students to create and then test 3 different buildings. Constraints are taken into account when the students create their design solutions. The students test their designs with specified criteria and constraints (this needs to be addressed more clearly prior to the activity) and check for qualities that would make it possible to choose one design over another. The included activity extension is a great activity that should be included with this activity. Students can then brainstorm and generate other alternative solutions and materials to test and compare them systematically to see which best meets the criteria and constraints of the problem. They can then build another structure and subject it to tests until it fails; and then redesigning the structure so it is stronger. This lesson can easily be adapted to the Common Core ELA standards through literature (The Three Little Pigs) and creative writing. To make this resource better it could be linked to real-world phenomena, such as having the class look at flood damage from erosion and discuss ways to improve construction to prevent such damage.

  • Instructional Supports: More background resources and non-fiction text about properties of rocks and minerals can be integrated into the lesson. Students can incorporate journal writing of their findings. Students can be encouraged to research into cement properties. Primary materials are lime and powdered clay mixed with water (i.e. the glue). Sand and gravel are added to this for strength.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: A pre-activity assessment, embedded assessment and post activity assessment questions are included to keep the students actively thinking about the best materials engineers need to use in considering cost, aesthetic qualities, availability and strength of materials. However, to make this a stronger lesson, students should be writing their predictions, observations and findings into a science journal so they can add to what they learned through the activity and discussions.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Although there is no technological component included with this resource, third & fourth grade students may benefit from this interactive link on properties of rocks prior to the lesson on Engineering for the Three Little Pigs.