The Shipley Method

Sixth Graders Engineer Chairs through a Creative Problem-Solving Process

What can constructing a chair out of newspaper and tape teach a sixth grader about creative problem solving?
Based on Caroline Feldman’s sixth grade science class: a lot! Simply known as “The Chair Project,” it’s the first project of many in the sixth grade science curriculum’s structures unit. While constructing the most stable chair is the obvious goal, Caroline’s goal for her students points to the process.
“I tell students from the beginning that it doesn’t really matter what their final chair looks like or whether it succeeds or fails,” says Caroline Feldman ’05, Middle School science teacher. “It’s all about the process.”
“We spend a lot of time learning about and analyzing what makes a structure stable,” says Feldman. “Before building the chairs, we make lots of models out of straws and test them with weights. The students sketch models in their journals and record what works, and what doesn’t. I challenge them to think about how they can keep improving the design.”
The journal becomes an integral part of this project. Upon completion, the students hand in a deliverable, which includes a designed cover, written analysis, cost analysis, diagrams, and scale drawings.
It Costs What?!
Integrating the cost analysis component speaks to The Shipley Method’s deeply-rooted learning.
“Each group keeps track of the amount of tape and newspaper they use and the amount of time they put into it to get a final cost of their chair,” explains Caroline. “Every meter of tape costs 22 cents, every 1400g of newspaper costs $6, and they work the real minimum wage of $7.64 per hour. Their chairs, on average cost between $60 and $100. The students are stunned at how much time they put into the project, and how much labor costs.”
“They essentially could make a really good chair if they know the right structural ideas and test it several times,” says Caroline. “And that would minimize the time and cost, but they don’t understand that until the end. I think that’s a great life lesson about planning and preparation affecting time and money.”
Weaving in Innovation
Students learn how to tap into their creativity to develop cost effective solutions. For example, one group chose to cut their newspaper into strips and weave the seat portion of the chair. Not only did weaving improve the aesthetics and comfort (two of the grading categories), but also increased the strength.
One group creatively transformed The Chair Project into a true STEAM project by incorporating a technology component.
“There was a group that went the extra mile to incorporate technology into their chair by adding speakers and a phone charger,” explains Caroline. “I allowed it because it was very creative and it didn’t add structural support – they were so into it I couldn’t say no.”
This project allows students to gain experience in creative problem-solving and analyzing cost, and teaches the importance of preparation. The skills that students develop throughout the sixth grade structures unit and through this project in particular, will benefit them as they grow into young adults and beyond.
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.