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Gingerbread House STEM Challenge

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Summary

Active Time
2-3 hours
Total Project Time
2-3 hours
Key Concepts
Engineering, design, forces, geometry, material science
Credits
Svenja Lohner, PhD, Science Buddies
Gingerbread House STEM Challenge

Introduction

How easy or difficult is it to build a gingerbread house? It depends on what you want your house to look like. Design possibilities are almost endless! You could make a multi-story building, try different shapes and sizes, or add extra features such as a balcony or chimney. The more complex your design gets, the more difficult it is to make sure that your house stays upright and keeps its shape. In this activity, you will become an engineer and design and build a gingerbread house that must fulfill specific design requirements. To add a competitive angle to this challenge, you can assign points for different design features and costs for your building materials. Can you figure out the best design, geometry, and materials for your gingerbread house to score the most points?

This activity is not recommended for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.

Materials

Gingerbread house:

  • Gingerbread or graham crackers
  • Royal icing, self-made or store bought
  • (Optional) Serrated knife to cut graham crackers
  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Resealable sandwich bags for icing, or piping bags with tips
  • Scissors
  • A flat plate, piece of cardboard, or cutting board as a platform for your house
  • Adult helper (for younger kids)
  • Edible decoration items of your choice. For example:
    • Pretzels
    • Candy canes
    • Sprinkles
    • Cereal
    • Gumdrops
    • Marshmallows
    • M&Ms
    • Chocolate chips
    • ...
(Optional) Shake test:
  • Square pieces of plexiglass (2), approximately 12 inches x 12 inches, available at a hardware store or on Amazon. Rigid cutting boards can also work.
  • Small rubber bouncy balls of the same size, about 1 inch in diameter or less (4), available on Amazon. Alternatively, you can also use table tennis balls or large marbles.
  • Large heavy-duty rubber bands (2), long enough to stretch around the plexiglass sheets (approximately 6 inches long when laid flat and unstretched), available from Amazon.
  • Metric ruler
(Optional) Wind test:
  • Hairdryer or fan
 Materials needed for the 'Gingerbread House Engineering Challenge' activity: Royal icing, Graham crackers, a paper, pencil, and and assortment of candies on a table.

Prep Work

Note: You can do this gingerbread house challenge by yourself or in a group. If you are doing this activity in a group or classroom setting, you can add a competitive aspect to this challenge by adding a point system or a budget. More details on how to do this are provided below.

  1. Decide (for yourself or as a group) what design requirements your gingerbread house must meet. The Gingerbread House Design Requirements sheet lists some architectural features and stability requirements that you may want to adopt. The list includes options for both basic design requirements for easier projects and additional advanced design requirements if you are feeling ambitious. Of course, you can also come up with your own requirements! The sheet also provides a point system in case you want to compete to see whose gingerbread house can get the highest score. Points are awarded if the listed design requirement are met.
  2. Optional: Decide (for yourself or as a group) if you want to build with a budget in mind for your gingerbread house project. This means that, just like building a real house, each material that you use for your project will be assigned a cost. Suggestions for material costs are provided in the Gingerbread House Material Costs sheet. Set a budget for your project and try sticking to it! A good budget to start with would be 30-40 dollars for a basic design and 70-80 dollars for an advanced design. Or compete to see whose gingerbread house can have the best ratio between design requirement points achieved and budget spent.
  3. Before you start building, you will need to prepare the royal icing, which you will use to glue the individual components of your house together. If you are using store-bought royal icing, it comes ready to use. If you want to make royal icing from scratch, follow the instructions in our 3D Printing with Icing video. Note: If you want to eat your gingerbread house at the very end and are making the icing, use pasteurized egg whites!

Instructions

  1. Once you have decided on the design requirements, sketch a few ideas of what your gingerbread house could look like. These are your design ideas. Think about the materials you have available and keep their costs in mind if you are working on a budget!
    Think about:
    How could you use the different materials in your gingerbread house design? How will all the parts of your gingerbread house connect to each other?
  2. Make sure you have all the materials you need. Then pick your best house design idea and start building your gingerbread house prototype.
    1. If you want to do the optional stability tests, build your house on the surface that you are using as the top part of the shake-table (see step 6.a).
    2. If you want to cut one of the graham crackers, use a serrated knife and ask an adult for help.
      A hand holding a Graham cracker that is cut with a serrated knife.
    3. Cut one corner off the sandwich bag and spoon the royal icing into the bag. To apply the icing to the graham crackers, squeeze the bag so that the icing comes out of the cut corner of the bag.
      A partially built Graham cracker house with two bags of royal icing next to it.
    Note: At this point, you only want to build the outer shell of your house. Do NOT put any decorations on your house yet.

    While building think about these questions:

    Think about:
    How can you make sure the walls of your house stay upright? In what order should you put together your walls, roof, and other architectural elements? What parts of your house carry the most load? Are there parts of your house that need structural support? How can you stabilize your house while building?
  3. As you are building your house, regularly review your design.
    Think about:
    Does your house meet all design requirements?
  4. Once you are satisfied with your gingerbread house design and structure, let the icing dry for about 15-30 minutes.
  5. The next step before decorating is testing your house. To do that, put it through a basic stability test. Make sure your house stands freely without any additional support, such as leaning against another object or being held together by your hands. Does your house stay upright and keep its shape? If yes, it passes the basic stability test! If your house doesn't stand up on its own, or the walls or other features slide and lose their shape, you will need to go back and see if adding additional support elements or more royal icing will improve the stability of your gingerbread house. Decorating your gingerbread house will add additional weight, so it is important that your house be sturdy!
  6. Optional: There are two advanced stability tests that you can do with your gingerbread house:
    1. The shake test: For this test you need to build a shake table. You can follow the instructions provided in Science Buddies' Building the Tallest Tower project to set up a simple shake table. Instead of plexiglass sheets, you can also use two rigid cutting boards.
      1. If you haven't built your house on the shake-table surface, carefully transfer your gingerbread house to the shake table. If it falls apart during the transfer, your house does not pass the stability test.
      2. If your house isn't already glued to shake-table, use royal icing to glue it to the center of the top surface of the shake-table.
      3. Then follow the procedure described in the Testing Your LEGO Tower Stability section to test the stability of your gingerbread house.
      4. To pass the shake test, your gingerbread house must stay intact at a displacement value of 5 centimeter (2 inches).
      A house made from Graham crackers is standing on a self-made shake table made of ping pong balls and two cutting boards. The top plate of the shake table is pulled 5 centimeters to the side.
    2. The wind test:
      1. Keep your gingerbread house glued to the top plate of the shake-table. (If you haven't done this yet, use royal icing to glue your house to the center of the top surface of the shake-table.)
      2. Turn a fan or hairdryer on its highest setting. If you are testing with a hairdryer, use the "no heat" or "cold" setting.
      3. Hold the fan or hairdryer 10 cm (4 inches) away from the house and let the air blow on the house for 30 seconds from each side.
      4. To pass the wind test, your gingerbread house should stay upright and intact without any parts falling off during the test.
      A Graham cracker house stands on a table. A hand holds a hairdryer about 10 cm away from the house, pointing it on one of the house's walls.
    Think about:
    During your testing, did you notice any "weak spots" or parts of your house that are less stable than others? Were any parts deformed or damaged?
  7. If your gingerbread house was damaged or fell apart during the stability testing, don't get frustrated! Use your observations from the testing to improve your house design and build it better. When the icing is dry again, test the improved gingerbread house following the same process as before.
    Think about:
    What are things that you can improve in your gingerbread house design? Are there parts of your house that could benefit from structural support to increase their stability?
  8. Once your house has passed the stability test, it is ready to be decorated! Again, keep the cost for each candy in mind if you are working from a budget.
    A Graham cracker house is standing between small bowls filled with assorted candies.
    Think about:
    How can you make the prettiest gingerbread house using the smallest budget? Do you think adding the decorations to your house changes how stable the house is? Why or why not?
  9. Let your decorated gingerbread house dry for another 15-30 minutes. While it dries, sketch the final design of your house next to your initial design. Compare the two designs.
    Think about:
    How are the two designs similar or different? What improvements did you make throughout your design process?
  10. Now it is time to check your final design against the design requirements! Does it meet all of the design requirements? How many design features were you able to successfully add? If you want to score your gingerbread house, review the Gingerbread House Design Requirements sheet and add up your points. What score did you get?
  11. If you decided to work from a budget, use the Gingerbread House Material Costs sheet to calculate the costs for your house. What was the total cost for all of your materials combined? Compare your final costs to the budget you set initially. Were you able to stay within your budget?
  12. Finally, calculate the final score for your house, which takes your design and budget into account. Add 2 extra points for every dollar that you stayed under budget and subtract 2 points from your score for every dollar that you went over budget.
    Think about:
    What is your final score? What could you do differently next time to get an even higher score?

Cleanup

Store-bought royal icing should be kept in an airtight container and can last up to 5 days at room temperature. If all the materials you used to build your gingerbread house are edible, you can eat your creation.

What Happened?

You might have found that it is not as easy as it seems to build a stable gingerbread house. The most difficult part was probably keeping all the walls and roof upright and preventing them from collapsing while building. Securing the walls and connecting the different parts of the house properly with icing is crucial to keep the gingerbread house from falling over. This is especially important for walls that connect your house to the ground as they must transfer the load from the rest of the structure to the ground. For example, if you built a wall that leaned to one side (rather than standing up straight) it is likely that the wall might collapse if you tried to build on top of it.

When testing your gingerbread house on the shake-table, one observation you probably made is that the weak points of a design are often the joints where different parts of the structure come together. This is why the amount of royal icing, or glue, used for building your gingerbread house makes a big difference. Applying enough icing is key to holding the individual parts of the house together. You might have also noticed that it is important to let the icing dry and harden before moving on with building. If the icing is still soft, any pressure put on the joints may make them come apart.

If your gingerbread house failed the stability tests, don't worry. Testing and observing your design allows you to identify weak spots that can be fixed in future designs. This process of repeatedly designing, building, and testing, called iteration, is used by real engineers and leads to the best possible final design!

Digging Deeper

Building a gingerbread house is similar to building a real house. As the engineer and architect, you need to plan and design the structure you want to build and make sure it meets all the design requirements. An important aspect of building a house is to make sure that it stays upright and keeps its shape, which is known as its structural integrity. This means that the house must be able to support its own weight to prevent any deformation (bending), breaking, or catastrophic failures, such as collapsing. So, what keeps a house from collapsing or toppling over? It all has to do with the forces that act on the building or its individual components. An engineer designs a building to withstand all the forces (things that push and pull on the building). Forces come from many sources: gravity, people inside, weight of building materials, weather, and the environment. If the design is stable, then all the forces acting on the building are balanced and will not weaken the structure or cause the structure to collapse. Structural failures can happen though. These are usually caused by weak structures due to inappropriate geometric design or material choice. For example, if a wall leans to one side and is not upright, it can tip over and collapse. This is especially problematic if the wall is supporting other structures of the house such as the roof.

When designing a house, selection of the right materials is another critical factor. If materials within the structure begin to deteriorate due to corrosion, wear, rot, or fatigue, they can cause failure of the whole structure. Before the building of a house can begin, an engineer first must consider each material's mechanical properties, such as strength, weight, toughness, or elasticity, to determine if the material is appropriate for its purpose. In the example of your gingerbread house, the mechanical properties of the royal icing are very important. Royal icing hardens more quickly and is stronger and stiffer than other icings like buttercream or whipped cream frosting. If you want to explore building more elaborate structures, you might consider switching from graham crackers as a building material to gingerbread, as it is less fragile, or you might want to change your gingerbread recipe to optimize its strength.

As you can see, building a house, even if it is just a gingerbread house, is not as easy as it might seem. There are a lot of considerations that go into building a functional and stable house.

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For Further Exploration

  • What other structures can you build with the materials you have available? Can you build a bridge or an airplane? Don't forget to come up with some design requirements before you start sketching and building!
  • If you do this activity in a classroom or group setting, build a gingerbread city! Assign different buildings, such as a police station, fire station, school, etc., to each person or group and let your students be creative.
  • Give the activity a chemistry spin and, instead of focusing on the engineering aspect of building the gingerbread house, focus on the icing. Explore which icing recipe is best for building a gingerbread house. Which ingredients are important? How thick or thin does the icing need to be? How fast does each icing recipe dry?
  • If you build your gingerbread house with home-made gingerbread, experiment with the gingerbread recipe. How can you make the gingerbread stronger or more durable?
  • Incorporate some mathematics into your gingerbread house design. The Gingerbread House STEAM activity - Math Connections lists some examples of how you can integrate Common Core Math Standards while doing this activity.

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