Spring Big Tinker

Spring term was very busy for all teachers. Not only was it very short, but we had reports to write, parents’ evenings and assessments to administer and mark.

Nevertheless, in the juniors, we managed to hold one of our regular Big Tinker sessions – albeit during the last week of term. For those of you new to our project, this is something we aim to do once a half-term which is in addition to our practice of including Engineering Habits of Mind in our every day lessons.

A Big Tinker can last an hour or an afternoon. It is a time when we take a break from the rigours of the curriculum and focus on a problem solving activity, which involves us ‘thinking with our hands’. Most of the time, we find that we end up covering many curriculum objectives – just in a more creative and stimulating way.

There are plenty of activities on the Internet that you can choose from. I decided to take part in this year’s Fluor Challenge – an annual engineering event which thousands of children participate in, all over the globe:

The website offers useful videos and detailed instructions as to how to proceed, and the materials required are all very inexpensive – things that you can probably find in the classroom. This year’s challenge was to make a ball launcher, using cups, pencils and rulers.

Ball launcher

The activity provided many learning opportunities for the children.

First, it offered a great opportunity to talk about simple machines, like the lever or the inclined plane. This led to the concept of projectile motion. How does the initial velocity (starting speed) and launch angle (angle at which an object leaves the launcher) of a projectile affect its range (distance it travels)? What trajectory (path through the air) will make it easier to catch the ball? A high, steep trajectory or a low, shallow trajectory? All things that make great scientific investigations.

There was plenty of maths for the children to get their teeth into as well.


The materials used to build the launcher incurred a cost. This was then used in an equation to generate a score:

Total score = 50 x (distance in centimetres) – materials cost

The objective was to get the ball into the pot.

Obviously, we tried this out at a staff meeting before the event, to check that it was feasible. Much merriment ensued – and a good deal of competition.

We discovered that it was actually quite difficult to get the ball into the receiver, but when it happened the sense of achievement was something else! Anyway, we decided that it was definitely a session that the children would enjoy and benefit from.

We made the right decision. What a great activity it was to end the term with. The children were totally absorbed in their designs. We just gave them the materials and the problem and then left them to develop their own solutions – unlike the teachers, who actually had the benefit of the instructional video! The results were very encouraging. Children persevered and worked cooperatively in teams. They thought about the problem they were trying to solve and used the materials appropriately, producing many different designs.

What delighted me most was the fact that the children were not satisfied with their creations. At the end of the session in Year 4, they particularly asked their teacher, Mrs Pecora, if she could make sure that the catapults were not thrown away during the holidays, as they wanted to adapt them when they returned after the Easter break, to see if they could achieve a better result. For me, this is a fantastic success – children hungry to improve their work. This has to be down to our encouraging them to think like engineers.

We will definitely be returning to this in the summer term and taking advantage of the mathematical opportunities the activity offers – I can’t wait to see what the children record in their log books.

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