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Design & Build a Dam

La Grande-1 dam in Quebec

La Grande-1 dam in Quebec (Jeangagnon P199 [CC BY-SA 3.0], Wikimedia Commons)

La Grande-1 dam in Quebec

La Grande-1 dam in Quebec (Jeangagnon P199 [CC BY-SA 3.0], Wikimedia Commons)

Let's Talk Science

How does this align with my curriculum?

Students will work collaboratively to design and build a dam that holds back a given volume of water for a certain time.

Overview

Students create and test a prototype dam that holds back a given volume of water for a certain time.

Timing
30-45 minutes

Setting the Stage

Prior Skills and Knowledge

To successfully participate in this Design & Build, students should:

  • be able to work with basic materials (e.g., clay, pebbles, sticks, water) 
  • be familiar with the properties of familiar solids and liquids.

Context

Flowing water, in the form of rivers, is a natural resource that humans use in various ways. For example, humans create river dams. Dams are barriers that can stop, slow, or redirect the flow of water. Dams can be used to help stop flooding. They can also be used for other purposes, such as channeling flowing water for electricity generation (hydroelectricity).

Kaunertal dam, Austria
Kaunertal dam, Austria (Source: HOerwin56 via Pixabay).

In this Design & Build challenge, students will work collaboratively to develop their designing and building skills as they create and test a prototype dam that holds back a given volume of water for a certain time.

This design and build could begin from:

  • questions and/or comments that arise after showing students videos of different types of dams. Ideally, select a range of dams so that students can see a variety of building techniques. 
  • going on a field trip or exploring photos of local dams. Discuss using questions such as:
    • “What materials do you think this dam is made of?”
    • “Why do you think this dam was built here?”
Cover of We’re Going to Build a Dam
Cover of We’re Going to Build a Dam (Source: Gillian McClure, Open Library).

 

Design Criteria

As a class, students brainstorm criteria that their prototype dam must meet. Educators may choose to add other criteria that are curriculum-specific, such as using joiners/fasteners, using specific measurements, using specific materials, etc.

Design criteria examples:

  • Dam must be the width of a container
  • Dam must be able to hold back x ml of water for xx amount of time.
  • Dam must be x cm high and x cm long

Details

Materials

These will depend on if you would like students to complete the Design & Build task inside or outside

  • access to water
  • blocks, interlocking
  • container, plastic, clear, plastic flat-bottomed
  • cup, measuring, plastic
  • image of dam
  • leaves
  • metre stick
  • plasticine, hard, preferably brown or gray
  • craft sticks
  • rocks, small
  • drinking straws
  • string
  • tape
  • toothpicks
  • towel
  • twigs
  • paper house (optional)

Materials

These will depend on if you would like students to complete the Design & Build task inside or outside

  • access to water
  • blocks, interlocking
  • container, plastic, clear, plastic flat-bottomed
  • cup, measuring, plastic
  • image of dam
  • leaves
  • metre stick
  • plasticine, hard, preferably brown or gray
  • craft sticks
  • rocks, small
  • drinking straws
  • string
  • tape
  • toothpicks
  • towel
  • twigs
  • paper house (optional)

Preparation

  • Collect an assortment of recycled and new materials that students will use to construct the prototype dams. The materials list above is only a ‘suggested’ list.
  • Set up material sourcing stations, organized by type of material. Alternatively, organize and provide an assortment of materials.
Suggested materials
Suggested materials for dam building (© 2019 Let's Talk Science).

 

Preparation

  • Collect an assortment of recycled and new materials that students will use to construct the prototype dams. The materials list above is only a ‘suggested’ list.
  • Set up material sourcing stations, organized by type of material. Alternatively, organize and provide an assortment of materials.
Suggested materials
Suggested materials for dam building (© 2019 Let's Talk Science).

 

What to Do

Students develop Design & Build skills as they design, build and test a prototype dam that holds back water.

Students will follow the steps of the Design & Build process:

  • identify the problem to be solved/needs to be met
  • brainstorm criteria that the prototype must meet
  • share their questions and ideas for a solution to the problem / need
  • discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each in order to select a potential solution to test
  • visualize what the solution might look like and make design sketches based on their visualizations
  • develop a design plan (e.g., identify the tasks or key steps involved in developing the solution, make decisions about tools and materials that will be needed, including labelled sketches)
  • build / develop the design idea based on their sketches and design plan
  • test their prototypes based on the design criteria
  • modify the prototype and retest it against the design criteria as necessary
  • reflect on their results and identify things that could be done to improve their prototypes
Exemplar dam and materials list
Exemplar dam and materials list (© 2019 Let's Talk Science).

 

Testing the dam – will it hold?
Testing the dam – will it hold? (© 2019 Let's Talk Science)

 

What to Do

Students develop Design & Build skills as they design, build and test a prototype dam that holds back water.

Students will follow the steps of the Design & Build process:

  • identify the problem to be solved/needs to be met
  • brainstorm criteria that the prototype must meet
  • share their questions and ideas for a solution to the problem / need
  • discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each in order to select a potential solution to test
  • visualize what the solution might look like and make design sketches based on their visualizations
  • develop a design plan (e.g., identify the tasks or key steps involved in developing the solution, make decisions about tools and materials that will be needed, including labelled sketches)
  • build / develop the design idea based on their sketches and design plan
  • test their prototypes based on the design criteria
  • modify the prototype and retest it against the design criteria as necessary
  • reflect on their results and identify things that could be done to improve their prototypes
Exemplar dam and materials list
Exemplar dam and materials list (© 2019 Let's Talk Science).

 

Testing the dam – will it hold?
Testing the dam – will it hold? (© 2019 Let's Talk Science)

 

Assessment

Observe and document, using anecdotal comments, photos and/or video recordings, students’ ability to:

  • Work Collaboratively –  students work collaboratively to complete a task and evaluate their group processes throughout the Design & Build process
  • Generate Ideas –  students use idea generation skills and strategies, such as brainstorming, to identify possible solutions as well as make decisions about the pros and cons of each solution
  • Communicate –  students communicate their thinking and learning in words, sketches, photos, videos, etc. (e.g., in identifying the problem, in design plans that include 2D design sketches and key design steps/tasks, in lists of materials/equipment/tools)
  • Work Safely –  students demonstrate safe practices when using a variety of tools and materials while prototyping
  • Test – students use skills of observing and recording data as they test their prototypes
  • Reflect – students reflect on the results of their prototype testing and suggest things that they might do differently to improve their prototypes

Assessment

Observe and document, using anecdotal comments, photos and/or video recordings, students’ ability to:

  • Work Collaboratively –  students work collaboratively to complete a task and evaluate their group processes throughout the Design & Build process
  • Generate Ideas –  students use idea generation skills and strategies, such as brainstorming, to identify possible solutions as well as make decisions about the pros and cons of each solution
  • Communicate –  students communicate their thinking and learning in words, sketches, photos, videos, etc. (e.g., in identifying the problem, in design plans that include 2D design sketches and key design steps/tasks, in lists of materials/equipment/tools)
  • Work Safely –  students demonstrate safe practices when using a variety of tools and materials while prototyping
  • Test – students use skills of observing and recording data as they test their prototypes
  • Reflect – students reflect on the results of their prototype testing and suggest things that they might do differently to improve their prototypes

Co-constructed Learning

Students:
Saying, Doing, Representing
Educator:
Interactions: Responding, Challenging
Students identify and refine the problem to be solved/need to be met.
  • “What is the problem that people are trying to solve when they build dams?”
  • “What is the purpose of a dam?”
Students brainstorm and record criteria for the dam.
  • “What words could we use to describe some of the features a dam must have to be effective?”
  • “How tall and wide do you think the dam needs to be if we use this container?”
Students visualize what the solution might look like and make design sketches based on their visualizations.
  • “Why do engineers label all of the parts of their design sketches?”
  • “How are you going to represent each part of the dam in the design sketch?”
Students develop a design plan (e.g., steps in creating a prototype, decisions about tools and materials).
  • “What materials might you choose to make sure that the (liquid) water doesn’t leak through your (solid) dam?”
  • “In what ways were the materials similar to what would be used in a real dam? In what ways were they different?”
  • “What tools might you need for building the dam?”
Students build/develop and test the design idea based on their sketches and design plan (create the prototype).
  • “Which of the design criteria does your prototype meet? Which ones does it not yet meet? Why do you think this happened?”
Students modify the prototype and retest it against the design criteria as necessary.
  • “What problems did you have when you re-tested your dam?”
  • “What changes in your model might improve your results?”
  • “If you had to build your dam in a flowing river instead of still water, how would your design change?”
Students reflect on the results of their testing and identify things that could be done differently in the future.
  • “What materials worked best? What materials did not work as well?”
  • “By creating a prototype dam, what have you learned about how liquids and solids interact?”
  • “What challenges did your team encounter in working collaboratively to complete the challenge?”

 

Co-constructed Learning

Students:
Saying, Doing, Representing
Educator:
Interactions: Responding, Challenging
Students identify and refine the problem to be solved/need to be met.
  • “What is the problem that people are trying to solve when they build dams?”
  • “What is the purpose of a dam?”
Students brainstorm and record criteria for the dam.
  • “What words could we use to describe some of the features a dam must have to be effective?”
  • “How tall and wide do you think the dam needs to be if we use this container?”
Students visualize what the solution might look like and make design sketches based on their visualizations.
  • “Why do engineers label all of the parts of their design sketches?”
  • “How are you going to represent each part of the dam in the design sketch?”
Students develop a design plan (e.g., steps in creating a prototype, decisions about tools and materials).
  • “What materials might you choose to make sure that the (liquid) water doesn’t leak through your (solid) dam?”
  • “In what ways were the materials similar to what would be used in a real dam? In what ways were they different?”
  • “What tools might you need for building the dam?”
Students build/develop and test the design idea based on their sketches and design plan (create the prototype).
  • “Which of the design criteria does your prototype meet? Which ones does it not yet meet? Why do you think this happened?”
Students modify the prototype and retest it against the design criteria as necessary.
  • “What problems did you have when you re-tested your dam?”
  • “What changes in your model might improve your results?”
  • “If you had to build your dam in a flowing river instead of still water, how would your design change?”
Students reflect on the results of their testing and identify things that could be done differently in the future.
  • “What materials worked best? What materials did not work as well?”
  • “By creating a prototype dam, what have you learned about how liquids and solids interact?”
  • “What challenges did your team encounter in working collaboratively to complete the challenge?”

 

Cross-curricular Connections

Literacy

  • Ask questions (e.g., “Why do we need dams?” “How do dams help the environment? How do dams harm the environment?”)
  • Communicate thoughts, feelings and ideas (e.g. brainstorm criteria for a dam; talk about ways in which human-made dams have changed and developed over time; discuss how dams impact the surrounding environment, including humans and other living things)

Mathematical Thinking

  • Measure the volume of water (ml) used for each test of the dams
  • Measure the time that the dam holds back the water (before breaking)

Visual Arts

  • Sculpt the dam prototype

Cross-curricular Connections

Literacy

  • Ask questions (e.g., “Why do we need dams?” “How do dams help the environment? How do dams harm the environment?”)
  • Communicate thoughts, feelings and ideas (e.g. brainstorm criteria for a dam; talk about ways in which human-made dams have changed and developed over time; discuss how dams impact the surrounding environment, including humans and other living things)

Mathematical Thinking

  • Measure the volume of water (ml) used for each test of the dams
  • Measure the time that the dam holds back the water (before breaking)

Visual Arts

  • Sculpt the dam prototype

Extending the Learning

If your students are interested in learning more, the following may provoke their curiosity:

  • Depending on what is accessible in your local community, you can increase the complexity of the dam-building challenge by having the students create their dams outside using materials they find. How well does the dam hold back water? How large can they make their dam? What constraints do they have and what problems do they run into?
  • Compare all the models that the class has produced. What was different about each of the models? What were their strengths and weaknesses? What role did different materials play in the success or failure of each dam prototype?
  • Invite students to explore photos of beaver dams, lodges and damage on trees caused by beavers. Discuss using questions such as:
    • “How do dams made by beavers differ from dams made by people?”
    • “What materials do beavers use to make their dams?”
    • “How do beavers cut down trees?”
Dalles Dam on the Columbia River in Oregon
Dalles Dam on the Columbia River in Oregon (Source: Scott Taylor, used with permission).

Extending the Learning

If your students are interested in learning more, the following may provoke their curiosity:

  • Depending on what is accessible in your local community, you can increase the complexity of the dam-building challenge by having the students create their dams outside using materials they find. How well does the dam hold back water? How large can they make their dam? What constraints do they have and what problems do they run into?
  • Compare all the models that the class has produced. What was different about each of the models? What were their strengths and weaknesses? What role did different materials play in the success or failure of each dam prototype?
  • Invite students to explore photos of beaver dams, lodges and damage on trees caused by beavers. Discuss using questions such as:
    • “How do dams made by beavers differ from dams made by people?”
    • “What materials do beavers use to make their dams?”
    • “How do beavers cut down trees?”
Dalles Dam on the Columbia River in Oregon
Dalles Dam on the Columbia River in Oregon (Source: Scott Taylor, used with permission).

Supporting Media

Books

Cover of We’re Going to Build a Dam
Cover of We’re Going to Build a Dam (Source: Gillian McClure, Open Library).

We're Going to Build a Dam
by Gillian McClure
Two boys and a dog use a variety of materials to try to build a dam that will stop a stream from flowing into the sea.
ISBN: 9780956510846

Cover of Beaver, Beaver Build! Life at the Longest Beaver Dam
Cover of Beaver, Beaver Build! Life at the Longest Beaver Dam (Credit: Cover image from Epic! (weblink: www.getepic.com) Used with permission)

Beaver, Beaver Build! Life at the Longest Beaver Dam
by Sandra Markle
Follows a year in the life of a young male beaver as he swims, plays, helps his family build and repair their dam and lodge, and learns how to flap his tail to ward off predators.
ISBN: 9781467749008

Videos

How the 726-Foot-Tall Hoover Dam Was Built Ahead of Schedule (2012)
Smithsonian Channel (3:32 min.) The world's biggest dam at the time of its construction, Hoover Dam solved the problem of the overflowing Colorado river with sleek design and brilliant American engineering.

Constructing the Hoover Dam (2016)
Science Channel (2:54 min.) Video discussing the building of the Hoover Dam and some of the challenges.

Supporting Media

Books

Cover of We’re Going to Build a Dam
Cover of We’re Going to Build a Dam (Source: Gillian McClure, Open Library).

We're Going to Build a Dam
by Gillian McClure
Two boys and a dog use a variety of materials to try to build a dam that will stop a stream from flowing into the sea.
ISBN: 9780956510846

Cover of Beaver, Beaver Build! Life at the Longest Beaver Dam
Cover of Beaver, Beaver Build! Life at the Longest Beaver Dam (Credit: Cover image from Epic! (weblink: www.getepic.com) Used with permission)

Beaver, Beaver Build! Life at the Longest Beaver Dam
by Sandra Markle
Follows a year in the life of a young male beaver as he swims, plays, helps his family build and repair their dam and lodge, and learns how to flap his tail to ward off predators.
ISBN: 9781467749008

Videos

How the 726-Foot-Tall Hoover Dam Was Built Ahead of Schedule (2012)
Smithsonian Channel (3:32 min.) The world's biggest dam at the time of its construction, Hoover Dam solved the problem of the overflowing Colorado river with sleek design and brilliant American engineering.

Constructing the Hoover Dam (2016)
Science Channel (2:54 min.) Video discussing the building of the Hoover Dam and some of the challenges.

Learn More

Dams in Canada (2019)

Canadian Dam Association - Webpage about dams in Canada. Contains a photo gallery.

Role of Dams (2019)

International Commission on Large Dams (ICLD) - Website that summarizes the different purposes of dams.

Learn More

Dams in Canada (2019)

Canadian Dam Association - Webpage about dams in Canada. Contains a photo gallery.

Role of Dams (2019)

International Commission on Large Dams (ICLD) - Website that summarizes the different purposes of dams.