Giant Animals

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This year’s cohorts of sixth grade 6th grade Design students rose to the challenge of inventing an animal, then designing a lightweight model of it as close to the size of a minivan as possible. We hung their creations in the eaves of the cafeteria, which livened the place up quite a bit.

Materials and tools:

3/4″ PVC pipe
press-fit PVC joints: 90 and 45 degree elbows, straight couplings, tee and cross couplings
PVC glue
Steel baling wire
Fabric – bolts and scraps, lots of colors. Tulle fabric is a big hit for some reason.
Big darning needles
Lifetime supply of embroidery thread
A magnetic parts dish is really useful to store/not lose needles
Wire rope and clips
Racheting PVC cutters
Battery drills and lots of 1/8″ bits (they break)
Safety goggles
Wire cutters
Blocks of wood to drill on

Learning goals:

This is usually the first Maker project incoming 6th graders are exposed to in the middle school. It’s an introduction of sorts. The idea is to take an original idea and make a huge, real-life version of it for display in a public space. Along the way students learn to adapt fantastic brainstorms into realistic contructions through sketching, understanding properties and limitations of materials, while picking up some new skills. This is a group project that requires teamwork to get done. You can spot the groups that aren’t working well together – and help them work things out – because their giant animals don’t get made. The end result are big, bold testaments to their creativity and hard work.

Timeframe: Eight 50-minute class periods


Classes 1-2: Introduce the project and briefly, the materials. Have kids in groups of 3-5 brainstorm on the animal they want to invent and create, draw it and name it. Have each group make a quick presentation to the class about their animal – how it moves around, where it lives, what it eats, etc. Next, explain how designers start with a sketch like they’ve done and end up with an engineer’s drawing in three views (such a drawing of a simple object, like a screw, is a good prop here). Ask what else we need to know before we can make such a drawing. Hopefully someone comes up with the properties and behaviors of the materials. Pass out pieces of PVC and fittings. Note the angles of the fittings – these are the angles your animal can have out of the box. Does the pipe bend? How much? (Safety goggles are a good idea for any PVC bending experiments). Demonstrate how PVC glue works – brush a tiny bit (stronger than using a lot) on both surfaces and twist them together as far in as they will go. Emphasize that it’s nasty stuff and shouldn’t get on skin, clothes, etc. Maybe someone has a better alternative to PVC glue?

Note: PVC does bend, but the fittings aren’t designed for lateral loads. This means that if you create say, a three-pipe circle with a diameter of 24 feet, connected by straight fittings, the fittings will crack against the pressure of the pipe wanting to straighten itself out. This can be dangerous – the pipe can whip out and get someone in the face. So PVC structures that store a lot of tension are a bad idea. You can accommodate some tension by reinforcing the joints – drilling holes in the pipes on both sides of a fitting and stringing them together with baling wire, for instance. Another way is to have one of the joints be flexible to absorb the load. An easy way to make a flexible joint is to drill holes in the two pipe ends and string them together with wire. Big geometric structures like cubes, for instance, can be reinforced with wire running diagonally between corners.

Thicker wire can also be used to make less geometric forms like ears, noses, horns, etc.

This is also a good time to introduce the tools. The racheting PVC cutters are easy to use and pretty hard to get hurt with. Emphasize that they are only for pvc though, the blades will chip if you try cutting wire with them. Show them how to drill a hole in PVC without breaking the bit (by keeping the bit straight). Make sure they have a block of wood under the PVC so you don’t end up with holes in your tables/floors.

Classes 3-5: Construct the animals’ skeletons or frames. Make sure kids push the joints all the way together when gluing – if they don’t the joints will pop out. This is a common point of failure that can be pretty frustrating. If a joint pops out after the glue is dry it’s best to cut off the last inch of the pipe and use a new fitting – otherwise the dried glue will prevent the pipe from going all the way into the fitting.

Storage becomes an issue here. We ended up suspending the bigger pieces from the ceiling between classes.

Classes 6-8: Once the frames are done, the next step is to sew on the fabric skins, appendages, tentacles, etc. A quick sewing demo is usually in order. I find it’s easiest to thread the needle and then tie the thread in a big loop with the knot at the furthest point away from the needle, rather than tying the knot around the needle’s eye iteself. The loop method means that students can lock the first stitch by threading the needle back through the thread loop on the second stitch. Unless the animal is really small it’s important to show the kids how to do big, looping stictches that cover a lot of ground, given the timeframe.

When the animals are done, kids can assist (from the ground) their hanging in whatever high-ceilinged space is available. If you’ve time (so far, we haven’t), it would be great for the kids to hang posters or perhaps they’re original drawings nearby to identify the animals.


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