April 2, 2017

Earth Day STEM Challenge: New Earth City

Maybe Rome wasn't built in a day, but New Earth City can be! This challenge is perfect for Earth Day, but it can really be used any time of the year. Fun fact: my master’s degree is in design-based learning, which shares many similarities with the engineering design process. This city-building challenge was my gateway drug into the STEM Challenge world. (More on that can be found here.) 

Let’s get into New Earth City!

The New Earth City STEM Challenge is perfect for Earth Day, but can be done any time of the year! Modifications included for grades 2 - 8.


It is the year 2035, and Earth has become overcrowded. The students are part of a pioneering crew tasked with setting up the first city (New Earth City) on Planetopia, a fictional name for a recently discovered Earth-like planet in a distant solar system. Part of the mission is to set up the city to prevent or address the problems we are having on Earth so we don’t repeat our errors on our new home planet. This challenge is best done in teams or partners due to time and space constraints.

Video Walk-Through

This challenge can be pretty intense, or you can keep it simple. The easiest way for me to share the possibilities is to explain it in person. The second best option is to share it with you in video format! See below for all the info. you need.     


One thing I always like to stress is that the suggested materials are often quite flexible. You can substitute, add, modify however you like. Basically, I like to provide a mix of mostly malleable materials with a few things for support (craft sticks, thicker cardboard, even straws). For a challenge like this, I often request students bring in "clean trash" for design materials. We usually get cardboard tubes, bottle lids, and a host of other oddities that make for some interesting cities! 

One thing you will need for this challenge is pieces of cardboard or foam board to act as the parcels of land on which to build New Earth City. I recommend at least 12 in. 12 in. For younger students, larger boards are easier to work with. If you have the space for it, I'd get large foam boards at The Dollar Tree and cut them in half. 

Criteria & Constraints

City planning can be intense! Urban planning is an entire field, after all. Thankfully, you have all the power to control how intense you want the challenge to be for your kids. 

The Criteria & Constraints List is key to any challenge. It's the framework around what students must build and how. This is how we can adjust expectations and use a challenge for really any grade level we choose. You can find two examples from the resource with different levels of difficulty below. 

The one on the left would be good for 2nd - 4th, and the one on the right works for 5th - 8th. You can add or delete items to tailor the challenge for your students.

For this challenge, I sometimes let the students help me make the list (this was how we did it in my master's program), asking, "What types of things will we need in our new city to survive?" After a few minutes, whatever I wanted on the list that they haven't suggested, I simply add. Always keep in mind the types of extension activities and lessons you want to tie in. If you want to work on surface area of various solids, require students have at least one of each 3D solid you want them to measure/calculate.

Measure Results

Students will measure and record their building sites. Then they'll evaluate themselves check themselves against the Criteria & Constraints List.


Extend with measurement and geometry activities based on distances from various points on student city designs, surface area & volume of buildings and structures, etc.  You could have students research what is currently known about other Earth-like planets in the universe, and, of course, research what we can do to help our current planet survive for generations to come! 

Another fun idea is to play up the pioneer angle, and have students keep journals and write letters home to "Old Earth" about their lives in New Earth City. (More ideas will be shared in the video and even more are in the resource.)

New to STEM Challenges?

If you're wondering how to break down this, or any, STEM Challenge lesson in your classroom, check out The STEM Challenge Cycle.

The Resource

You can find the resource in my TpT store by clicking the cover below. Don't forget to come back on April 13 to see the video walk-through, and feel free to leave any questions in the comments below. 


The New Earth City STEM Challenge is perfect for Earth Day, but can be done any time of the year! Modifications included for grades 2 - 8.

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