May 4, 2017

Summer STEM Challenge: Amphibious Phone

Here's a problem none of us want to have -- you've dropped your phone into pool, and now you've got to leap in after it and hope it hasn't been fried before you can rescue it! In this challenge, students will try their hand at designing a summer-proof smartphone case. (Don't worry, paper templates will be used instead of phones -- I'm not crazy!)

Summer STEM Challenge: In Amphibious Phone, students will make a summer-proof smartphone case that makes the phone waterproof and retrievable when dropped into a lake or pool (or bucket, as the case may be)! Includes modifications for grades 2-8.


Working against a criteria & constraints list, students will make a summer-proof smartphone case that makes the phone waterproof and retrievable when dropped into a lake or pool (or bucket, as the case may be)!

Suggested Materials

Where Can I Find Out More?

If you're familiar with my work, you know I've been switching over to using video to explain the bulk of my challenges. It seems to be the best/fastest way to explain the important details: materials, set-up, tips, modifications, extensions, demonstrations, and more!  Who has time to read all that?! However, if you prefer to read, you'll find the video transcribed at the end of this post.

Check out the video below to see Amphibious Phone in action:

Are There Other Challenges Like This?

Of course! I can't help myself! I have created 5 challenges for summer/the end of the school year! You can find the overview of each on this blog post. Each challenge is described in the post linked above, so be sure to check it out! 

Please reach out with any questions and tag me in photos of your students' work on Facebook & Instagram.

You can find even more STEM challenges in my Mega Bundle, on this blog, and on my YouTube channel!


Summer STEM Challenge: In Amphibious Phone, students will make a summer-proof smartphone case that makes the phone waterproof and retrievable when dropped into a lake or pool (or bucket, as the case may be)! Includes modifications for grades 2-8.

Video Transcription

Hi, welcome to our fifth and final Summer STEM Challenge, Amphibious Phone. In this one, students are trying to design a summer-proof case that allows the phone to live in land and on water. Don't worry, we're not going to use a real smartphone. Let's take just a second to check out the materials and the STEM Challenge Cycle. This is the STEM Challenge Cycle you should follow for every challenge. I've defined each step in another video. I've added a pop-in card to that video here, as well as a link in the description.

A few quick notes about the materials. First of all, do not give your students Ziploc bags. That makes this challenge far too easy. Instead, you can get the fold over bags, and I actually usually like to cut them along the seams. That does take a little bit of extra prep work, but I just usually do that while I'm watching TV the night before the challenge. You could also just use plastic wrap.

An average smartphone weighs somewhere between 4 and 6 ounces, so the students need to weigh down their design around that amount. If you don't have a class set of weights, you can use paper clips, pennies, nickels, a combination of change, or even bread. You'll have students place weights in an envelope, and then you can simply have them fold it into a rectangular shape like the phone, and then you'll just put the cutout of the phone right on the front. If you don't own the Amphibious Phone resource, you can just look up smartphone clip art online, or you could even students draw their phone.

A few optional materials you might want to consider are balloons, foil, and a variety of kinds of tape, duct, shipping, scotch, and masking. Once the weighted phone is ready, before the students start designing the cases, it's helpful to have them use some water-based markers to just make some markings around the front and the back. When they do their waterproof testing, it makes it a lot easier to tell if there was a leak, because those marker colors will run.

The students are aiming for two main goals here. They want a waterproof case, and they want the phone to be retrievable if dropped into a body of water. I also add a criterion that the screen of the phone must be visible. For younger students, I say the case has to remain waterproof for 5 seconds. For older students, I would increase that to 10, 15, 30. You make the call. For constraints, of course you have time and materials. In addition, the phone needs to weigh between 4 and 6 ounces. With the case, it should weigh no more than 8 ounces, but if you don't have a scale in your classroom, I would just remove the weight constraint.

To increase the difficulty, you could require that the phone be able to fit inside a pocket. You can require that the phone case be reusable. That is, that you should be able to test it, take it out of its case, and use the same case again for a second test. As I said before, you can increase the amount of time that the phone will spend in the water and has to remain waterproof. You can require students figure out on their own how to weigh down the phone 4 to 6 ounces, without giving them easy materials to do so, or you could give them a mass of paperclips but tell them the amount that they use has to keep the phone within 4 to 6 ounces, but the number of paperclips must also be divisible by 2, 3, and 4.

To measure results, students will record whether or not the phone was retrievable, yes or no, and whether or not the case was waterproof, yes or no. You'll want to do your testing outside because there is going to be some water splash. That's because students are not going to gently place the phone inside the bucket. That wouldn't be terribly realistic. Instead, you're going to have them do a drop from at least a foot. Whatever the distance is that you want to use, just make sure that you either draw or tape a line on the wall behind it, or do as I did and tape a ruler above it.

After the phone has remained in the water for the time that you set in the criteria and constraints, students will remove it, dry it off with some paper towels, and carefully remove the phone from its case. They'll check carefully to see if there's been any color run in the markers, and if they can see any evidence of any leaks.

To extend on this, you can have students do some research into the technology. How do touch screens even work? How do text messages work? How does your phone always know exactly where you are? You could also have them look into why water ruins electronics. Ask students if water is a conductor or an insulator. It's kind of a trick question, and maybe you even tell them it's kind of a trick question and have them report back to you on why.

Ask students to explain to you why they think this challenge is called Amphibious Phone. You can follow up by having students do some research on other classes of animal, and then see if they can come up with a challenge for another class. They'll do this by identifying unique factors of those classes of animal. For example, fish can breathe underwater, but what would that mean for a phone, if a phone could breathe underwater? Maybe they'll interpret it to mean the phone has to be able to be powered underwater, or powered from water. You can allow them to choose just one class or try to come up with a challenge for every class. You could simplify that and simply have the students do more of an art activity where they create designer phone cases for each class of animal.

If you want to tie in a little bit of ELA, I like to have students write a fantasy short story about the day the smartphones arrived under the sea. It's great for personification and characterization, and I like to also have students brainstorm ahead of time what the different reactions of the sea creatures might be to the smartphones' arrival. You might have acceptance, reverence, fear, distrust. Have the students write their stories collaboratively, and you can either let them choose one of the reactions, or assign different reactions to every group and then compare how different the stories are at the end.

You now have all the basics to do Amphibious Phone in your class on your own, but as always, this resource is packed full of goodness for you, so take a second to check it out. This time saving resource contains everything you need, including modifications for use with second through eighth graders. You'll still need to gather the simple materials, of course, but the rest is ready and waiting. You'll get Aligned Next Generation Science Standards, links to my STEM Challenge How-to videos to help you get the most from each challenge, the Amphibious Phone Materials list.

In Teacher Tips, you'll find premise and set-up, how to increase or decrease difficulty through the Criteria and Constraints list, measuring results, and cross-curricular extension suggestions. You'll find an editable Criteria and Constraints list so you can tailor the challenge to your students. You'll also receive smartphone templates. There are two versions of design analysis handouts, four-page expanded room for response for younger students, and a two-page condensed space paper saver version.

You'll also find a set of group discussion questions. In the extension handouts, you'll find an animal classes activity. You'll also receive an under the sea writing prompt with handouts, as well as math extension and process flow templates. This resource is available individually and as part of the discounted Summer and Mega STEM Challenge bundles. Links can be found in the description below the video.

I hope you and your students have a great time with the Amphibious Phone. Make sure you're following my store on Teachers Pay Teachers or subscribed on YouTube. Have a fabulous week. I'll see you next time.

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