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5 fun engineering activities you can do at home
Teens construct a tower out of paper and tape. - photo by Carrie Rogers-Whitehead
By the time your morning is over you have probably benefitted from engineering dozens of times, from pipes taking water to your shower to the design of your cereal box and the roads you take to work.

Engineering is all around us. Its the science involved in the design, building and use of engines, machines and structures. Here are some simple and inexpensive activities you can do at home to demonstrate these principles and perhaps inspire a budding engineer.

1. Make a message pulley

Want to send secret messages back and forth? Whether its up in a tree or down the stairs, a pulley made with some simple items is fun to use. Even better, you can find most of the makings lying around your house.

Don't be afraid to get creative with similar items you have on hand; fixing problems is part of the learning process.

a. Grab two of each of the following: new pencils, small plastic bottles with thin neck openings, thumb tacks and ribbon spools with smaller holes. Our spool came from beading thread. The pencils need to fit through the holes smoothly. We used contact lens solution containers for the bottles.

You will also need some scissors, duct tape, four washers that fit on the pencils, some twine or string, a baggie and a clothes pin. Gather duct tape and scissors and you are ready.

b. Be sure your bottles are short enough to leave at least two inches of the pencil sticking out. Cut the top off the bottle just enough so the pencil fits snugly into the hole. Put the pencil in eraser-side down.

c. Push the tack through the bottom of the bottle and firmly into the eraser of the pencil. Tape the tack in place with duct tape and wrap the bottle if desired as well.

d. Duct tape the pencil tightly where it enters the top of the bottle wrap the tape about inch high around the pencil. Slide one of the washers on the pencil and add the spool. Put on the second washer and tape just above the second washer so the spool can spin, but the top washer wont come off.

e. Take string long enough to double the distance you want your message to travel. Tie a knot in the twine and loop the string over the two spools. Hold the spools so the string doesnt come loose and fall off.

f. Write a secret message and put it in the baggie. Pin the bag to the twine and tell the other person to pull it toward themselves. Send messages by pulling the string back and forth.

Questions to consider: What are some pulleys around you? A flagpole is a common pulley, but can you find others? Why should you include the washers on this experiment? Try spinning the spool on the pencil without the washers. What happens?

2. Block City

Little builders love to build so issue them a challenge: create a block city where they are able to drive a toy car from here to there but the vehicle can only drive on the road." Provide a variety of blocks (hard/soft, flat/arch) and half-sheets of black-paper. Then invite them to construct. Talk through the construction, asking questions. Consider making some road signs for your city.

Question to consider: Where should the roads go to drive from here to there?

3. Simple Bridges

After reading the tale "Three Billy Goats Gruff," see how many goats you can help get onto a bridge before escaping the Troll. Make simple bridges from blocks and construction paper. Test different shapes of bridges, vary the distance between pillars, alter the weight of paper sustaining your goats and test any other variables you can think of in order to create the perfect bridge.

Questions to consider: How many goats do you think your bridge can hold? Why did that bridge collapse? What can you do the bridge to make it stronger?

4. Helicopter Shooter

Make this simple helicopter and have some fun outside. Print the pattern below and get some tape, scissors, a thin, stretchy rubber band and a paper clip. Then have fun!

a. Print and color the pattern. Cut out along the solid line, including between the blades, and fold on the dashed lines as instructed.

b. Tape on the paper clip and rubber band as shown.

c. Fold the wings up toward the paper clip and hold them in place.

d. Place the rubber band over a finger or end of a ruler. Pull the helicopter back and let it go, so the folded blades are at the front.

Questions to consider: Try launching the helicopter different ways with the blades folded back, not folded and any other ways you can think of. Which way works best? Why? What happens when you scallop the edges of the blades?

5. Paper tower

This is a simple activity that works great as a competition: who can build the tallest tower with just tape and paper? Gather a stack of paper, scissors and masking or painters tape. Set a timer and see who can create the tallest tower in 10 minutes with the supplies. If you have more than one child, have them compete against each other, or work as a pair to find the best way to construct their tower.

Questions to consider: Why is constructing a solid base important for a tower? Try rolling the paper up. Does it increase the stability? After your tower is constructed, see how stable it is? How long does it stand up?

Jennifer McKague and Susan Jeppesen contributed to this story.