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Bird House and Surface Area

Students will make a birdhouse and use it to understand surface area

Cycle Type

  Contextualized Math

This is the Contextualized Math cycle type. Cycle types used to organize cycles by categories.

Maker Mindset

In maker tasks, students are invested in what they create, are interested in using what they’ve created, and in learning what classmates have created. This should be true in both making and in mathematics.

Maker tasks encourage trying out design ideas early to see if they are feasible. If they work, they are revised and improved upon. If they don’t, they are replaced by new ideas quickly without losing too much time pursuing dead-ends. This habit of mind also applies to mathematics. While solving math problems, students should test their ideas early. Will an idea lead to answers that is reasonable rather than too big or too small? If we are writing a general expression or equation, does it work for small cases? Can we tell without solving if a solution will be positive or negative?

CC Standards

3.MD.5-7, 4.MD.3, 6.G.1, 6.G.4

You can find descriptions of all common core math standards at Common Core Math Standards

Students will make a 3-D pattern for a birdhouse using centimeter dot paper and construct a rapid prototype. After assembling 3-D pattern, students will estimate the surface area of their prototype in square centimeters, giving a "too low" and "too high" estimate. After a gallery walk, students will revise/transfer their design to foam core [or cardboard or other material] and build a sturdy birdhouse. In the following math lesson, students will gain understanding of area using geoboards, and calculate the surface area of their birdhouses.

The mathematical ideas explored in this cycle build are part of a 3rd to 6th grade progression. In grade 3, students are introduced to the square unit as a measure of area (3.MD.5-7). In grade 4, students apply area to rectilinear objects in real world problems (4.MD.3), which lays the foundation for finding area for non-rectilinear objects in grade 6 (6.G.1) and representing three-dimensional figures using nets (6.G.4). Area formulas are not the goal (but may be “discovered”); the goal is a deep understanding of area as an attribute of plane figures.

Students will build a maker mindset and will experience rapid prototyping.

Challenge Overview

Students will build a birdhouse and use it to understand surface area. Students will design a rapid prototype/pattern using centimeter dot paper and tape. No face can be larger than a half sheet of dot paper.

After a “gallery walk” and a synthesis discussion, teams will have another block of time to build their final birdhouse out of foam core and tape.Students will work on building linear measurement skills. Students will develop understanding of the ideas of area and surface area.

The follow-up lessons need the dimensions, in centimeters, of each face of the birdhouse. These can be discerned from the dot paper. Corners on the prototype should align with dots on the dot paper. Students will use to deepen their understanding of area.

It is critical that teams wrestle with design challenges on their own, without teacher design assistance.

Prior Experience:

Linear measurement, single digit multiplication (possible third grade experiences with area).

Materials For This Cycle

  • 6 half-sheets of centimeter dot paper per student
  • Foam core board for second task (note foam core is likely to be in inches.  One 24x36 sheet of foam core will make two bird houses. With care two sheets of foam core will make 5 bird houses)
  • Scissors for prototype, cutting tools for foam (Falcon paper cutter works well)
  • (centimeter rulers available for diagonals?)
  • Pencils, scratch paper for recording measurements
  • clear tape (scotch tape for prototype, packaging tape for final)
  • straight edge tools
  • Elmo, or board, for demonstrating square centimeters


Learning Cycle Wrapup:

Teacher Summary


Some interesting questions:

  • What's the right material for the final birdhouse? Foam core makes a nice, stiff bird house but it's costlier than cardboard and it's got enough to thickness (1/8 inch to 3/16 inch) to throw off measurements. Wood has to be pre cut. Cardboard will not stand up to much use. What materials, and what cutting tools, are ideal for your classroom?
  • How do you minimize scrap? A half sheet of dot paper is 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches, foam core is 20x30 inches. These two sizes do not naturally fit together. How do you transfer the pattern to the final material minimizing waste?

Credits and Sources: