Teach Math and Engineering Concepts With Rigamajig

Springtime at Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, Illinois, is when our fourth graders apply what they’ve learned in math class to a creative string art project.

Combining Math and Art

Leading up to our projects, our fourth graders are applying their geometry skills by exploring lines and angles with a series of paper and pencil activities. Through these activities, students see how math opens the doors to design, engineering, architecture and more. This paper and pencil study is followed by an introduction to string art, during which students use their math skills to create a 3D work of art using wood, nails, string and a protractor. The simplicity of the lines, angles and numbers come together to create incredibly complex and beautiful string art creations.

Kicking It Up a Notch With Giant-sized String Art

Two years ago, our school’s math facilitator, Judith Campbell, and I decided that we wanted to extend this project one step further. We had students create a giant piece of circular string art using stakes and engineering tape (you can read about our process in School Library Journal).

We learned a lot from this first project. One takeaway was that, for future projects, we wanted the kids to do the math and help us plan and order our supplies. We also wanted to make the angles more simple to mark, so we decided to increase the number of stakes around the circle from 32 to 36. Thus, each stake would be 10 degrees apart from our center point.

Rigamajig to the Rescue

We also realized that we needed our protractor to be actual size. Previously, we had to extend our protractor with string, and this made it difficult to place the stakes around the circle. So, the next time we did the project, we used Rigamajig, one of our very favorite makerspace tools.

Rigamajig is a large-scale building system of planks, pulleys, wheels and ropes that can be connected with large finger-tightened wing nuts and bolts. These tools are designed in a way that allows students of all ages to construct large objects relatively quickly and easily. My students have turned them into carts, benches, wagons, spaceships and stores. In fact, they are our favorite tool for prototyping projects we want to construct permanently out of lumber. Check out our bench project for an example of how we’ve done this.

So, it made perfect sense that when we needed a giant protractor to mark our outdoor string art project, the students built it using Rigamajig! After we reviewed the math, the students transferred the 10-degree angle from the classroom protractor to the giant Rigamajig protractor we had created.

To construct our giant Rigamajig protractor, we measured the angle we needed to “freeze,” and then we laid the bottom leg of the protractor on the ground. Next, we combined several large Rigamajig boards to get the 12-foot radius of our circle. We laid a second Rigamajig-constructed leg on top and attached the two with one thumb screw and a wing nut. Then we simply opened the two boards to match the angle of the protractor. Once we had this exact, we added a third board to make a triangle. We locked the boards in place with two more thumb screws. Then we made sure the protractor was placed at our midpoint and hammered a stake at the end of each leg of the triangle.

Below you’ll find details on the entire process of building our giant string art.

Engage Young Minds With Large-scale, Hands-on Learning

See how the award-winning Rigamajig system allows students to explore math and engineering concepts through playful learning and real-world application.

The Learning Process

This spring, we began the process far earlier because we wanted this project to be huge — 24 feet in diameter!

Our supplies list consisted of 36 stakes (24 x 2-inch), hammers (the heavier the better), and approximately 16 rolls of 300-foot engineer marking tape.

As part of the fourth-grade math curriculum, students had been studying radius, diameter and circumference, and they were comfortable with multiplication and division. So, after we introduced them to the dimensions of the new string art project, they got to work:

  1. We began with a planning sheet that helped students work through the math and design process.
  2. Students began working on a prototype that was a 12-inch-diameter circle and calculated the length of engineering tape we would need for our 12-foot giant circle.
  3. Next students figured out how much tape we would need to purchase. Then they went shopping online to figure out what the best bargain would be. They made recommendations on which colors to purchase and which bundle of engineering tape was most economical. Finally, we placed our order.
  4. When the day of our project finally arrived, the three fourth-grade classes were ready. Half of each class came out at a time for 30 minutes and got as much done as they could. The first group of students examined the site and decided where they thought we should place the circle. We knew we wanted to be able to do a flyover with our drone to capture the creation, so we kept that in mind as we scouted out trees and overhead obstructions.
  5. After deciding on a spot, we placed our center stake. Using our Rigamajig protractor, students worked together, taking on different roles in order to place each of the stakes along the circumference of the circle. One student stood at the center stake and made sure the protractor touched it at all times as it was rotated around the circle. Another student placed one stake at the base of the protractor and another was placed at the end of the hypotenuse. The students were challenged to hammer the stakes in 12 inches, which took a lot more energy and time than they thought it would, but what a sense of accomplishment! This process took about 60 minutes. 
  6. After placing all of the circumference stakes, the next group of students began wrapping the engineering tape around the stakes. The students counted around the circle for the sequence of wraps. They pretty quickly developed systems for counting, checking and verifying. Students were encouraged to be collaborative and take leadership when they saw an opportunity. It was fascinating to see how different groups worked together. We divided the classes into two groups, and each group got to wrap a color according to the mathematical pattern (the first pattern was every 11 stakes; the second pattern was every 13, then 15 and 17). In the end, we did four different colors of tape, each with a different pattern.
  1. We culminated the project by inviting the entire fourth grade to join us around the circle, and we did a flyover with our new drone. Throughout the project, we asked the students to talk about things they noticed and wondered about, which opened the door for thoughtful engagement and conversation.

At the end of the day, the students had a lovely mix of blisters, sore muscles and pride. Rigamajig proved once again to be an incredibly flexible and useful learning tool. It helped facilitate the hands-on application of mathematical, artistic and engineering concepts, as well as fostered collaboration and communication skills.

Watch the entire process in action:


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Todd Burleson

Todd Burleson

Resource Center Director at Hubbard Woods School
Todd Burleson is an educator with 24 years of teaching experience. His students have ranged in age from kindergarten to college. As a Teacher-Maker-Librarian he's constantly curious, and his passion is finding the balance of books and bytes in the classroom while encouraging students to explore their own personal interests. Todd's library was recently named School Library Journal’s 2016 School Library of the Year. You can read more on his blog and connect with him on Twitter @todd_burleson and @HWSIdeaLab.
Judith Campbell

Judith Campbell

Elementary Math Interventionist
Judith Campbell, an educator at heart, has spent over 25 years in the elementary school setting in Winnetka, IL. Currently she is an Elementary Math Interventionist. Judith is continually curious about how children make sense of math and always looking for ways to help them make connections.