Unplugged: Cardboard Container – SCOPES-DF

Lesson Details

Age Ranges
Fab Tools
MS-ETS1-1, MS-ETS1-2, MS-ETS1-4, Fab-Safety.1, Fab-Fabrication.1, Fab-Design.1
Original Lesson Here

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Aidan Mullaney
Aidan Mullaney
Aidan Mullaney is the Instructional Manager for the GE/Celtics Brilliant Play Lab. His primary role with the Fab Foundation is developing and delivering curriculum for the middle school mobile lab. Aidan facilitates career-related activities with a focus on STEM in… Read More


Students are introduced to the Engineering Design Process by creating a cardboard container to hold the contents of their pocket. In this rapid prototyping activity, each step of the EDP will be addressed while creating a prototype device out of craft materials. This lesson follows the 5E Instructional Model and will prepare students for lessons within the GE Brilliant Career Lab Collection.

This lesson was featured in an article by the same author as part of the SCOPES resource page.

NOTE: Digital fabrication tools are not used in this lesson. This lesson serves as an introduction for future use of digital fabrication tools.

What You'll Need

Materials (per student)

  • Cardboard, in excess
  • Aluminum Foil (x1/2 sq. ft.)
  • Tongue Depressor or Popsicle Sticks (x2)
  • Binder Clips (x1)
  • Pipe cleaners/String (x2)
  • Straws, paper (x2)
  • Rubber bands (x4)
  • Note card (x2)
  • Any additional craft materials of your choice
  • Scissors or box cutters if safe (x1)
  • Ruler (x1)

Engineering Design Process Data Sheet (per student)

The Instructions

Establish the Activity

Introduce students to the Engineering Design Process

Before class, create an example cardboard container. The instructor is highly encouraged to go through each step of this lesson when completing their container.


Students will work individually or in groups of two to create unique solutions for this challenge.

Hand out the attached Engineering Design Process Data Sheet

Discuss key points of the engineering design process:

Challenge: Design a container to hold the contents of your pocket. Alternatively, the container could hold the contents of your backpack, purse, or locker.

Problem: This container (organizer, protector, dispenser) may not be assembled using any adhesive, including tape, glue, or stick material.


Generate interest in the activity by allowing students to generate criteria of the problem.

Identify (5 minutes)

Identify the criteria and constraints of the challenge as a group:

  • How much time will you have to make your container?
  • What materials will you be able to use to create your container?
  • Which object(s) from your pocket will this container hold?

Materials can be displayed buffet style at the front of the room or in the center of student tables for later in the activity. The instructor may choose to give every student the same amount, assign a budget and cost to each materials, or another option entirely.


Ask probing questions about the materials and share an example solution to the problem in order to direct student investigations.

Research (5-10 minutes)

Share the instructor created example cardboard container with students.

Ask students “What are the Pros & Cons of my design? Specifically, what design elements do you think you might use or exclude for your container design?


Guide students through planning and explaining their proposed solutions.

Develop Solutions (5 – 10 minutes)

Students will sketch or diagram multiple (at least 3) ideas for a container that could hold their belonging(s). Students will have 5-10 minutes to draw these designs. They do not need to but may include all available materials in their design. Students may use partners, peers, or the internet as a resource to brainstorm their sketches.

  • For groups struggling to think of a device, instructors may suggest a simple wallet. However, it’s important to note this is not the only possible problem.
  • At this step of the process, instructors can look for evidence of student’s understanding of proper sketching and planning.


Select Solutions (5-10 minutes)

Allow students to discuss the designs they sketched with their group or table. Students should gather feedback from peers about their sketches and decide which design they want to prototype. Encourage students to create a detailed sketch of their container using measurements or a ruler.



Allow students to use their plans to create their prototype devices.

Prototype (10 minutes)

Give students access to the materials at this time.

Materials can be selected once students have shown the instructor a plan or a sketch of their Selected Solution. The instructor will assign a time limit (around 10-15 minutes) for students to construct their containers. 


Students will assess their own learning by asking open-ended questions about their prototype devices.

Test (5 minutes)

Direct students to test out the device individually or with a group member to analyze the following:

  • Does the container function as intended?
  • What are the strengths/weaknesses of the design?


  • Does it fit in your pocket, backpack, purse, or locker?
  • Does it open and close easily?
  • How long does it take to store/take out the contained item (use a stopwatch)?

Instructors can come up with additional ways for students to generate data.


Evaluate (5 minutes)

Tell students to find a partner or another group and swap creations.

Find one change that would make your peer’s design better. Have students swap feedback and record the new information about their design on their data sheet.


(Additional questions you may ask if time permits:)

  • How could you make their design more effective at solving the problem?
  • How does their design inspire you?
  • What materials do you think would improve their design?


Communicate (5 minutes)

Once their containers have been returned, students should come up with at least two changes they would make to their designs in the future. These changes can include more materials, different materials, or additional time to prototype.

Allow students to individually or in groups share their results to the instructor and the class.


Students will modify their original designs using personal reflections and feedback from their peers.

Redesign (if time permits)

Students have 5-10 minutes to make their containers more effective.

After 5-10 minutes:

  • Did your modification solve the problem?
  • How did you build on what already existed?
  • What part of the Engineering Design Process did you find to be the easiest or hardest?
  • Did anything surprise you while prototyping your container.

Allow students to share their redesigned products! 

Connections to Digital Fabrication

Incorporate free digital tools to connect this craft lesson to digital fabrication.

Classroom friendly software such as Google Drawings, Inkscape, and Tinkercad allow students to design their prototypes on the computer. Instructors may digitally fabricate student’s prototypes on any number of machines, including a laser cutter, 3D printer, and vinyl cutter (note: properly cutting cardboard on a vinyl cutter may require adjustments to the machine).



  • (MS-ETS1-1): Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.
  • (MS-ETS1-2): Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
  • (MS-ETS1-4): Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.
  • (Fab-Safety.1): I can safely conduct myself in a Fab Lab and observe operations under instructor guidance.
  • (Fab-Fabrication.1): I can follow instructor guided steps that link a software to a machine to produce a simple physical artifact.
  • (Fab-Design.1): I can be responsible for various activities throughout a design process within a group under instructor guidance.

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