RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS: Ms. D. and Harry; and the Single Sheet of Paper Challenge

This article is reproduced with permission of the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA). Learn more about comprehensive STEM programs and teacher resources at

Ginny D’Antonio &
Harry T. Roman

Ms. D. and Harry have been working together for 7 years. She is an 8th grade science teacher at Abington Avenue Grammar School in Newark, NJ, and he is a retired research engineer and inventor who went to the school back in the 1950s. Together they motivate students to stretch beyond the normal classroom activities into the realm of open-ended problem solving, hands-on demonstrations, and team-based design challenges.

Nothing sticks in the mind of a student like a topically relevant example of how to use what was just learned. Several times a year, we team up to drive educational points home in an unforgettable fashion. Over the last five years a variety of special two-hour programs have been conducted with the students:

  • Measuring and analyzing the output of a solar-electric panel;
  • Statistical analysis of student physical dimensions;
  • Design of a new board game;
  • Design of an anti-car theft system;
  • Design of a robot to assist the handicapped; and,
  • Famous NJ inventions and inventors and their impacts on life.

However, the all-time favorite activity of the students is the single sheet of paper challenge, which is the main subject of this article. Here is an account of the activity as we most recently conducted it in May of 2007.

Getting Started
This team activity is best served with 4-5 members per team. Make sure to divide your students into equally balanced teams with both head and hand- learners on each team, so they can learn from each other.

It’s a simple design challenge…

“Each team may do whatever they want to a single sheet of paper, just so long as it supports their history book 1 inch off the table.”

We suggest using some Xerox machine quality paper for the exercise and also have some scissors, a little tape and some things like rulers, pencils and such available. It will be OK for them to use a little tape, but not excessive amounts of it. The key is to get the paper to do the work.

Making It Happen
All teams usually begin by trying to manipulate the paper so as to increase its strength. There is not a great deal of deductive reasoning at this point; as most teams are anxious to crumple, fold, twist, and bend paper to get the challenge underway. The teams are running on instinct at this point and flying by the seat of their pants. In almost all cases, students ignore the “1 inch” criteria … but for now that is OK.

Generally, students end up crumpling the paper and trying to see if that will let them support the book. We usually walk around with a ruler doling out the bad news about that pesky “1 inch” request. It’s as if most students are so much more concerned with simply supporting the book, rather than meeting the “1 inch” request.

Students also often fold the paper into a long strip and usually tape it into a cylindrical form and then attempt to balance the book on this shell of paper. Again, our trusty ruler reveals a continued lack of respect for the “1 inch” criteria. Some students at this stage will try and add more books to their paper foundation and see how many books they can support. The urge to compete is great. We keep pushing them to meet that “1 inch” criteria.

A team or two may just by luck hold a book off the table at 1 inch or maybe a bit more — but purely by luck. They may also become adept at balancing about 4-8 books on a shell of paper. Here is where they resort to the tape to make the paper immune to crumpling. Eventually they fail at maybe 10-12 books. At this point we call a breather and inject some tips about thinking the problem through…

“All teams — listen-up: That 1 inch request is important. You need to pay attention to it. We notice that many of your are having trouble balancing the books on your single paper support. Think about how you can make that book more stable. How are things supported in the real-world. What makes a table so strong? We said you must use no more than a single sheet of paper. We set an upper limit on what you can use — not a lower limit. Now let’s resume our challenge.”

Trying Even Harder
At this point some lights go on and the students realize they can cut the single sheet of paper to make supports for the corners of their book. Some teams also choose a triad design as well, using 3 supports instead of four.
Away we go again with the urge to pile books up. Alas, the “1 inch” request still gets little serious play. Teams are back to crumpling and folding paper most furiously. Now they might by luck get perhaps 12-18 books off the table, but they are far from the “1 inch” criteria. Frustration starts to set in, as teams bend the rules, trying to force a solution. Lots of tape will be used in a vain effort to make the paper very strong. Or some students will try using more than 1 sheet of paper.

It’s now time for Harry’s talk on engineering. Tearing a piece of cardboard, students see why the cardboard is so strong. The inside is a rolled and glued column-like structure. We discuss how this type of construction provides great strength — emphasizing the columns of paper that run through the sheets of cardboard perform the same function as columns in a building. Engineers have built cardboard structures so strong, they can hold up battle tanks. Surely, this class can design some paper structure that can hold up some books … 1 inch off the table.

We now focus hard on the “1 inch” criteria. This is where engineers start—-with the specifications about exactly what is needed. The “1 inch” is what gets the planning process started, because planning comes before building anything. In fact, more than 50% of any project is analysis and planning. The rest is pretty straightforward after that. But here in class, it seems to be all building and no planning.

Soon the teams are experimenting with columns, and eventually they begin constructing columns from 1 inch strips of paper they measure and cut from a single sheet of paper. As they learn how to make the columns nice and tight and seal them with a little tape, the number of books they can support radically increases … while they meet the 1 inch criteria. Flushed with success, the kids now scramble for books; and if they don’t get over-anxious and load them up carefully … we’re talking something like 25-40 books nicely piled up and still exactly “1 inch” off the table. We use the floor at this point for the column test as it is much easier to stack the books that way. Desks can wobble under the weight of the books.

In the pictures accompanying this article, the enthusiastic students were able to support a new record of 52 books. The old record was 42 books established back in 2004 by an all girl’s team. In establishing this new record, we almost ran out of books, so innovative students figured out how many 5 pound history books equal the weight of a small student, and up that student went onto the existing pile of books — with several more books in hand as well!

The Summing Up
This exercise drives the flowing points home:

1) The key to success is in the details and the specifications given about what the solution must satisfy;
2) Those specification details drive the design challenge, and hence the analysis and planning for a successful project;
3) We all want to “do” the challenge, and get caught up in the excitement. The right thing is to step back and understand the problem;
4) Jumping around, trying one thing and then another, just wastes time and makes for frustration; and,
5) Real creativity starts with understanding exactly what the specifications are and innovating around them.

This is an exercise where hand-learners can often shine, able to see solutions before their book-learner counterparts. In this most recent challenge activity discussed here, one student almost immediately started making columns. When asked what made him think of that, he replied … ”I saw a TV show about how buildings are built and that is the first thing I thought of when you challenged us to support a book”. In his mind, the activity was akin to building a structure, an exact analogy. This is why it is so important to have both head and hand-learners on each team.

Have fun with this activity, and remember … the key is in the details and that 1 inch specification; and have plenty of books on hand!