Pillow Forts: Adapting the Annual Engineering Design Challenge for 2021

Nancy Ward
Students at Clairbourn are on an exciting journey of self-discovery and risk-taking made possible by a team of supportive teachers, a kind community, and an inspiring and safe environment. Children learn to discover their abilities in math, science, art, drama, music, and sports thanks to the cultivation of a growth mindset which keeps them motivated and moving forward in the face of setbacks encountered along their learning journey.

STEM activities like those found in Clairbourn’s annual Engineering Design Challenge are a big part of that journey. It is where students learn to believe in their abilities as designers and problem-solvers, and self-identify as engineers. To continue this school-wide activity during the Pandemic, with learning taking place at home, called for some serious re-imagining on the part of the school to make sure students didn’t miss out on this important learning milestone.

In prior years, students used identical batches of materials to build bridges, catapults, vehicles, parachutes, rockets, or other semi-sophisticated devices, and professional engineers were even brought on campus to explain the engineering process and help students improve their builds. To do something similar in the students’ own personal homes was not logistically possible.

But, as famous Chinese-American martial artist and philosopher Bruce Lee said, “Be like water making its way through cracks…adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it.” In the same wise way, Clairbourn’s Engineering Design Challenge was adapted to a new form for 2021. The main adjustment was to minimize the physical outcome and instead to maximize the mental journey of engineering design. Students were asked to design and build pillow forts and focus on the engineering thought process.
Clairbourn Middle School Science Teacher Guen Vinnedge Introduces the Design Challenge

To help kick off the event, Civil Engineer April Shewry, who works for Turner Construction in Chicago, Illinois, shared a video message with students of how working as an engineer makes her feel good and that it gives her a sense of purpose as she improves the lives of people in her community with building projects.  

Civil Engineer April Shewry shares why her work matters and gives her purpose.

A second video came from Systems Engineer Dr. Stefanie Wachter who works for Carnegie Observatories (and who is also a current Clairbourn parent). She talked about the mental aspect of her work as part of a team that builds instruments for telescopes used to study stars and galaxies. She is the person that provides the clear, written specifications for the scientific instrument builders. She also monitors how the parts are being built and how they work together. Her advice to Clairbourn students was to pursue clarity on two issues before starting to build a pillow fort: 1. Look carefully at the requirements that need to be met and check repeatedly along the way that you are meeting them. 2. Take inventory of and understand the materials that are available for your building project.

Systems Engineer Dr. Stefanie Wachter explains her work and provides tips on pillow-fort building

When the pillow-fort build commenced, students were allowed to use any materials in their home. Those in Grades K-5 were given basic requirements, such as: The pillow fort must be big enough for the engineer to sit inside, have three sides, and include a roof that does not touch the head. At least two pillows must form the structure, and the fort must stay standing for one minute. Older students in Grades 6-8 had to meet additional grade-level requirements such as a roof capable of holding the weight of their science textbook, decorations added to the fort designed to coordinate with their English class study project of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and lastly, eighth-graders were required to add a door.

Enthusiasm for the Pillow Fort Challege was palpable across the student body! Kindergarteners were abuzz with questions about each other’s forts on Seesaw and shared with their teacher comments like, “I loved building the fort!”,  “I got to watch TV with my pillow fort.”, and “I had fun building the house or tent thingy.”

From simple to elaborate designs, students found many ways to meet the pillow fort challenge requirements.

Middle School Students had a more formal experience and were required to record their thought process, analyze their results, and reflect on improvements they could make.  During the five minute brain-storming period, students found themselves considering if their roof would be tall enough, if their body would fit, the best location to build the fort, what furniture could be used to help provide structure, what could make a strong roof to hold the textbook, what would make a good door, what strategy could keep the structure balanced, how could the foundation be made strong, how could soft pillows be braced, and even “How simple can I make this?”.

When asked if they felt brainstorming was valuable and if it influenced their build, students responded, “It helped me decide what design I would use.”, “I got to think more about the what-if’s, so I could have backup ideas.”, “I had to think about my surroundings and where i could put stuff.”, “It helped me to imagine the best materials I needed to use to make my fort.”, “It made the actual build process easier and provided me time to think about if my fort follows all the rules.”, “I never would have thought of putting chairs of the same height together to hold the roof and the pillows up if I didn’t have that 5 minutes to just think about common sense.”

Students had diverse strategies for building spacious and stable pillow forts with a required roof.

Brainstorming led them to use chairs, blankets, pillows, desks, couches, ladders, tables, a closet, brooms, dresser drawers, teepee sticks, a tennis ball tube, and even a bed frame. But with these materials came challenges!  Students reported problems with stability, roofs being too low or too weak to hold their science book, blankets were too short, roof materials were too heavy and would collapse the sides of the fort, poles needed better support, and some struggled with what item to use for a door.

In reporting on the solutions employed to overcome these challenges, students cleverly learned to restack items for added height and increased stability, they used water bottles and books to weight blankets and keep them in place, they moved chairs closer together, repositioned pillows, used a fitted sheet to contain cushions, used clamps to make materials stay together, and in some cases redesigned and rebuilt their fort from scratch to achieve success.

Student designs showed lots of personality as well as creativity in how they were accomplished.
Their final reflections on what they would redesign in the future included intentions to increase the overall stability, size, strength, and height of the structures, add some lights for atmosphere, include a snack stash, add blankets for cozy comfort, and one student even wanted to turn their next fort into a movie theater!

While this year did not include a school-wide competition or the exciting presentation of an overall-winner trophy, students learned a valuable lesson on how to adapt to unusual circumstances and still accomplish the most important objective – learning how to think, plan, and overcome challenges, as all engineers do in their daily work.
Private School Education for Preschool, Kindergarten, Elementary School, & Middle School Grades - Serving Families in the Pasadena Area and Surrounding Cities
Clairbourn is a 501(c)3 charitable organization. (K-12 Private Schools)