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Tallest Paper Tower Challenge for Grades 9-12


Grade Range
Group Size
1-4 students
Active Time
2-3 hours
Total Time
2-3 hours
Area of Science
Civil Engineering
Engineering Challenge
Key Concepts
Engineering design
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies

This engineering challenge is based on an internal competition designed by employees at Fluor Corporation.


Teach your students about the engineering design process with this fun lesson plan. The lesson is based on the real-world challenge of designing an observation tower. Can your students maximize the height of the tower while minimizing the amount of material needed to construct it? Teachers, note that elementary and middle school versions of this lesson plan are also available. The 2021 Engineering Challenge is over, but you can still try out this fun challenge with your students, or check out the latest version of the Engineering Challenge.

Remote learning adaptation: Students can watch the introductory video and follow the instructions on the Student Worksheet to build and test their towers independently at home. If you would like students to work collaboratively, students can share their design ideas and testing results with each other via video conferencing or shared documents and photos iteratively before settling on a final tower to test and submit as their entry.

Learning Objectives

NGSS Alignment

This lesson helps students prepare for these Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations:
This lesson focuses on these aspects of NGSS Three Dimensional Learning:

Science & Engineering Practices
Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. Plan an investigation or test a design individually and collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence as part of building and revising models, supporting explanations for phenomena, or testing solutions to problems. Consider possible confounding variables or effects and evaluate the investigation's design to ensure variables are controlled.

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions. Design, evaluate, and/or refine a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.
Disciplinary Core Ideas
ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions. When evaluating solutions, it is important to take into account a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, and to consider social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
Crosscutting Concepts
Structure and Function. Investigating or designing new systems or structures requires a detailed examination of the properties of different materials, the structures of different components, and connections of components to reveal its function and/or solve a problem.


Materials needed for the 'Paper Tower Challenge' lesson plan.

If you want to enter your design in the 2021 Engineering Challenge, you can only use the materials listed below.

Background Information for Teachers

This section contains a quick review for teachers of the science and concepts covered in this lesson.

Throughout the world, engineers have designed a wide variety of observation towers in different shapes and sizes (Figure 1). Unlike regular buildings and skyscrapers, which typically have rooms (offices, apartments, etc.) on every floor, observation towers may have a mostly "hollow" structure with an observation deck on top. Other similar structures that have a hollow frame with a heavy load at the top include water towers and radio towers (Figure 2). You can download a Towers of the World Slideshow for more pictures.

the space needle, a tall skinny tower with a hollow frame and circular observation deck at the top  the Pitampura TV tower, a skinny cylindrical tower with a round deck at the top  the Eiffel tower, a tall tower made from trusses that is wider at the base than at the top  the CN tower in Toronto, Canada
Figure 1. From left to right: the Space Needle (USA), the Pitampura TV tower (India), the Eiffel Tower (France), and the CN Tower (Canada).

 radio towers, tall skinny towers supported by guy wires that are tied to the ground  water tower, a tall structure with a thin frame and large tank of water at the top
Figure 2. Radio towers (left) and a water tower (right).

The 2021 Engineering Challenge is inspired by towers like those in Figures 1 and 2. As shown in the following video, the goal is for students to build the tallest possible tower using only paper and tape, but the tower must also support a can of food at the top.

You can use this project to explore several topics in physics and engineering with your students. For example:

  • Beams are long, skinny elements used to make many structures like towers and bridges. Multiple beams can be combined to make trusses. Certain truss shapes can be very strong. Can your students identify any trusses in Figures 1 and 2?
  • An object that is being "squished" is in compression and an object that is being pulled on is in tension. Beams can be in either tension or compression, depending on how a tower is designed.
  • Sometimes towers include ropes, cables, or chains as part of the design. These parts can only be in tension (think about what happens if you try to "push" a rope), but they can still be useful. For example, the long cables connected to the top of the radio towers in Figure 2 are called guy wires. They are anchored to the ground and prevent the tall, skinny towers from falling over.
  • The shape of a beam can dramatically affect its strength. For example, it is very easy to bend a flat piece of paper. It becomes much harder to bend the paper if you fold it in half multiple times or roll it into a tube. This resistance to bending is determined by the beam's cross section. For example, the cross section of a flat piece of paper is a (very thin) rectangle. This rectangle bends very easily in the thin direction. The cross section of a piece of paper rolled into a tube is a circle. An I-beam (where the cross section looks like a capital letter I) is a common shape used in many structures.

You can also use this project to demonstrate the engineering design process. It is unlikely that your students' towers will work perfectly on the first try—they might even collapse! Your students might need to iterate by testing and tweaking their designs multiple times so they can continually improve them. You can use this video to review the steps of the engineering design process with your students.

Prep Work (15 minutes)

Engage (5 minutes)

Explore (1-2 hours)

Reflect (20 minutes)


Make Career Connections

Lesson Plan Variations

Free science fair projects.