Home Coding/Computer Science The Dump Truck Incident: An Elementary Problem-Solving Challenge

The Dump Truck Incident: An Elementary Problem-Solving Challenge

by Guest Blogger
elementary problem solving

The Dump Truck Incident (also known as the Pumpkin Push) is a problem-solving challenge that can get your elementary students excited and thinking about engineering concepts in a new way. With an inexpensive set-up and a fun problem to solve, let your students loose to figure out the best way to clean up a mountain of gourds from a busy roadway.

Reporting Live from the Scene

“Oh, I am so glad you are here!  I’ve been waiting for you. There’s been an accident on the East-Tex Freeway in this 8 a.m. traffic.  We have quite a mess! A dump truck has wrecked and lost its load of pumpkins! No worries though. The driver was not injured…he walked away just fine. However, traffic is ALL backed up. They said they were sending over a group of fourth grade engineers. You are the ones they were talking about, right?”

The responses are huge smiles, big nods, and hearty yes-es!  I’ve hooked them.

On the floor is my best attempt at creating a highway (paper and marker), a toy dump truck ($5 at Walmart) on its side, and “pumpkins” (orange pom-pom’s purchased from Michael’s) all across the road. The students survey the scene and we briefly discuss what might have happened and what problems may arise because of this spill.

Brainstorm, Research, Engineer, Repeat

Now that we’ve surveyed the problem, it’s time to solve it! As a class, we discuss the forces of motion including push and pull. I ask for volunteers to demonstrate each term. Then I ask how could we use this information to help us with our problem. In every group, they respond that they could push or pull the pumpkins out of the way and clear the roadway.

I then talk to them about plows (my students here have no idea what a snow plow or truck plow is) and we research plows together. You could conduct this research on individual laptops, if available, or a big clear touch monitor as group.

After they have read up on plows, they are ready to apply their research. I ask them to design on paper a plow they could build to attach to a robot. So far, I have used Ozobots; but this activity could be done with any type of robot. I have plans to try this out with LEGO EV3 robots in the future. What I like about using the Ozobot is that if I need to shorten the activity, the students can use the “line following” feature to speed things up instead of programming the bots using Ozoblockly. I like that flexibility.  

Try, Fail, and Try Again!

Once they have designed their plow attachments on paper, I provide materials for them to build their creations. The first day I did this activity, it was a teacher fail. We are lifelong learners, right? The materials I provided were too heavy for the Ozobot bits. The students’ designs were awesome, but they were just too heavy. Armed with this new knowledge on the second day, I traded the tongue depressors and glue for one index card, two pipe cleaners, and tape. Success!  

I told the students they could build something to push OR pull the pumpkins out of the way and that they could use all or part of the materials to build their plow. I had scissors available in case they needed to cut their card or pipe cleaners. I also provided a piece of paper with a black line on it and a few of the “pumpkins” so they could test their robot and plow before we moved to the roadway. If students were not successful in pushing the pumpkins out of the way, I encouraged them to work with their group and modify their design….but not to give up!

Final Thoughts

You could modify this lesson to fit so many different scenarios and add other objectives like drag and friction. It’s important to have the students work in groups on this and complete the designing part on paper before they begin construction. It is also important to reflect at the end of the activity as a group about what worked and didn’t worked.

One day, some engineers from Exxon-Mobil joined us. I loved seeing them work with the students!  

This is a guest blog by Joy Schwartz. Joy is the Beaumont ISD STEM Coordinator and a 31-year veteran mathematics, computer science, and robotics educator. Her passion is providing students with opportunities to experiment with STEM-related tools that they have never worked with (drones, robots, 3D printers, etc.) and discovering their hidden talents! Find Joy on Twitter @joyschwartz or www.layeringlife.wix.com/1313.

One extra note from Peggy Reimers: Joy unleashed The Pumpkin Push aka The Dump Truck Incident in October. But I can see where you could easily make the dump truck spill red, green, and white pom-poms for tree ornaments, green pom-poms for St. Patrick’s Day, or pastel pom-poms for spring time. Joy used Ozobots, but many other types of robots could be used in this scenario. Thanks Joy!

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