Sunday, March 06, 2011

Housing Theme

by Mike Kaechele

In my 8th grade applied technology class we do a unit where we build balsa towers. We start off talking about the history of building and architecture while investigating the strongest shapes that make up buildings. Students then research different design ideas on the web. We talk about the science concepts behind the project daily with opening discussions about force, mass, center of mass, loads, and buckling. Students draw their towers to scale measuring the angles and lengths to calculate whether or not they will have enough sticks to complete their design. After we break the towers students calculate whose tower was the most efficient. At the end I have had students write letters to our local mayor designing a tower for tourism or blog about their experience on our class blog. So we integrate math, science, history, and language arts into one project where students research, design, build, destroy, and evaluate.

But this project lacks a few things that I would ideally (see my ideals listed here) like to see: not enough student choice, the projects all tend to look the same, and too much of the structure of the unit is pre-designed by me. So I would like to expand this idea to a larger theme that could be taught by a single teacher, perhaps in an elementary setting, or by a team of teachers at any level. I like the idea of "theme" better than "unit" because I envision the teachers having some idea of what will happen but the students influencing the process so that where it goes and ends up is open-ended.

For starters it would be a theme on housing. The unit would look at what kinds of dwellings humans choose to live in. It would emphasize the political, social, economical, cultural, and environmental factors that influence these choices. I was originally going to separate these suggestions by subject area but they are too intertwined so I will just list some possibilities. This theme is designed to fit an "all day" integrated project not just a one hour class.

  • Housing could be looked at in terms of the history of architecture from different countries, climates, and/or cultures around the world. 
  • Students could watch films like Garbage Warrior to learn about modern, environmentally friendly building methods. This film also brings up the problem of strict building codes limiting innovation.
  • Students could analyze the role of government in establishing building standards and codes and influencing building policy through laws and incentives. They could look at the advantages of quality control vs. the disadvantage of limiting innovation.
  • Students could study how the environment effects the shelter needs of humans in different climates. For example they could learn how and why Inuits chose to make igloos and Mongolians make yurts. 
  • Students could learn about recycled homes or innovative urban designs like this Chinese egg.
  • Students could learn about differences in impact between single family homes and multi family complexes and even communes.
  • Students could look at children's bedrooms around the world to compare differences in living standards.
  • Students could learn about the millions of people who have no "home" but live in shelters, shanty towns, refugee camps, or even in garbage dumps.
  • Students could learn how toxic or carcinogenic materials have been used in construction.
  • Students could go on local field trips to view historic and/or modern architecture. Students could visit "green" buildings.
  • Students could watch this TED talk about how the differences in engineering in Haiti and Chile led to contrasting results from the recent earthquakes. 
  • Students could interview architects, construction workers, and engineers in person or through Skype. 
  • Students could learn about differences between LEED, Green Built, zero energy, and passive home designs. They could analyze how much of these programs are political and how much of them are actually environmentally responsible.
  • Students could analyze statistics about how humans live across the globe. Then they could create an infograph about how the choice of materials effects human health and the environment.
  • Students could research the dwellings of indigenous people and compare them. Students could have debates whether modern or indigenous dwellings are better for human life and the environment. 
  • Students could perform energy audits of their own homes figuring out the volume and square footage of their homes and finding cost/ square foot to heat and cool their homes.
  • Students might study an important architect such as Frank Lloyd Wright or a branch of design such as feng shuai.

Every group of students would not do all of these things but different groups would choose the topics that are most interesting to them and even suggest other ideas. Some students might choose to branch off into related topics such as environmentalism, capitalism, architecture, interior decorating, sustainable native plants, etc. The directions this project could go are almost endless. Hopefully it is obvious that intertwined in all of these ideas is math, science, social studies, language arts along with art and technology.

The cumulative project would be for teams to use what they learn to design, draw blueprints, and make a scale model of an ideal ecological dwelling (like this example). It may or may not look like a conventional house with conventional materials. It could be influenced from any of these activities from cultures around the world. Students would also have to provide a budget for the estimated cost of the materials of the home. They would have to show the energy consumed. Students would also present their homes to their peers (and broader audiences through social media) and describe the benefits of their models.

These are my thoughts for a practical theme based on my key beliefs of the best practices of student learning. What are your thoughts? What would you add/subtract? How could this theme or a different one be used for student-centered learning in your classroom?


  1. Who has a house? One billion people worldwide live in slums. That's 1 out of every 6 people on the planet. Kids gaining empathy for that billion is the first step in understanding global housing. The next steps are to understand our own situation, and your ideas are spot on.

  2. Where is that place buddy? perhaps in USA and other rich countries don't have that kinda slum areas you said.

  3. I remember doing the whole 'build a bridge out of toothpicks' unit. It was one of my favorites because it was one of the only things I remember creating. I really like how you've added relevance and social impact to the project. I don't have personal experience, but have seen some video of classes using Google Sketchup- might be a tool to consider adding for some students who are inclined to like that aspect.

  4. @James- "Who has a house?" Love that as an opening question for this theme-pure genius and strait to the heart of the matter.

    @Yahswe I am confused by your comment. What "place" are you referring to? Would love to have a dialogue with you but unclear of you point.

    @Buys I have used Google Sketchup and it would be a great tool for students to "play" and design their structures. Thanks!


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