TAME Engineering Adventure: Wrecking Crew

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Welcome to TAME Engineering Adventures! Every month we strive to bring you engineering activities that will help you challenge your TAME Club students with hands-on learning. 

Take it to pieces! This month's Adventure demystifies devices by taking them down to their (still sometimes mysterious) component parts. It's a classic way to help your students build confidence and think like problem-solving engineers.

Students can take apart all kinds of devices -- from clocks (easy) to laptops (intermediate) to toaster ovens (difficult) to cars (expert) – and then try to put them back together. This month we're offering suggestions on how to tackle this kind of project with your own TAME Club. It's a great way to get your Club members to start thinking like engineers in preparation for our STEM Competitions.

De-mystifying everyday devices

When encouraging students to think like an engineer, it's all too easy to focus only on the constructive part of design and invention. It's not as common to give students the permission and encouragement to deconstruct things--particularly expensive or complicated things like electronics or appliances, which aren't always completely safe. 

In his groundbreaking TED Talk, 5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do, Gever Tully suggests that young people gain confidence and a sense of responsibility with certain tasks that might be considered dangerous. One of his suggestions is to let young people deconstruct appliances--with adult supervision, of course.

"There is a world of interesting things inside your dishwasher. Next time you're about to throw out an appliance, don't throw it out. Take it apart with your kid, or send him to my school, and we'll take it apart with them. Even if you don't know what the parts are, puzzling out what they might be for is a really good practice for the kids to get sort of the sense that they can take things apart, and no matter how complex they are, they can understand parts of them. And that means that eventually, they can understand all of them. It's a sense of knowability, that something is knowable. So these black boxes that we live with and take for granted are actually complex things made by other people, and you can understand them."

We chose his TED Talk to showcase the concept for this month's Engineering Adventure because it demonstrates what a positive impact this kind of hands-on activity has on students' creativity and confidence as future engineers.


Begin with a trip to your local thrift store or the IT department at your school. Look for battery-operated devices like tape, CD and DVD recorders and players, blenders, boomboxes or talking, remote-controlled or motorized toys.  Choose simple devices for middle school, more complex for high school.  We recommend devices with motors or other moving parts for maximum excitement.  

If possible, you should also plan to have more devices than the number of students, because sometimes a device will surprise you by having screws frozen in place or inaccessible to tinkering. Having extra gadgets on hand will make sure no one misses out.

While there, we also recommend finding a plain sheet or blanket you can lay out to protect your table or floor, and which will help catch spare parts and screws. Garbage bags, newspapers, and tarps also work well.


Safety goggles and gloves are essential.  Screw drivers (flat head and Phillips head, various sizes or a multi-screw driver) will come in handy every step of the way. Pliers, safety screw drivers, allen wrenches (also known as hex keys) and other wrenches are useful.  Flashlights and magnifying glasses will help with exploration.

Hammers and power tools can be used in a pinch, though stress they should always be used with adult supervision. 

Take this opportunity to talk with your students about when and how to use these tools. For example, as fun as it might be to smash through a difficult metal cover with a hammer, you'll likely get better results using a set of pliers to hold one side, and another set of pliers to pry open the top. Explain to your students why it's smart to keep the device on the table for stability and safety, rather than holding it up in the air. 

Safety check

Make sure every student and participant has safety goggles and gloves. Once the project begins, they should not touch their face or clothes with their gloves, as some electronics can have oils or unknown chemicals inside. All participants should wash their hands thoroughly at the end after removing their gloves.

Talk with your students about the fact that they may encounter sharp metal or glass, and that some devices may still be powered once you open the case. No matter what age your students are, make sure they understand the importance of asking for permission and adult supervision if they want to try their tinkering skills out at home.

Lay out the sheet, the supplies, and the tools. Remove all batteries and make sure everything is unplugged before proceeding. Then in the interest of thoroughness and laying down good habits, ask your students to check for these things, too. If you're concerned about electrical mishaps, you can also cut off the power cords. Modeling safe behavior for your students is absolutely critical for an activity of this sort.

Research, explore, then research some more

As the adult supervisor, you should do your research on your own before your students begin to take apart an item. We recommend pulling up the website HowStuffWorks, which has a treasure trove of information on tons of gizmos and gadgets. This will allow you to go in-depth with your students about concepts like transforming electric power into convective heat with a hair dryer

For the student all set to explore, it may be interesting to see what happens when they approach their device with a fresh mind and no expectations. Encourage students to resist the urge to Google a diagram right away. Let them puzzle it out by themselves, first. You can even encourage them to draw their own diagram, and compare it later on to ones they might find online.

After they've opened up the device and pulled apart its pieces, they may have questions you can't answer. This curiosity is key to the success of this kind of activity. Once they have a list of questions, that is the time for them to research their gadget using websites like HowStuffWorks. See if they can name all the parts and their uses.

Let the student lead

When the moment comes to start the project, you might be tempted to take apart the toaster or stereo while your students watch. Keep in mind that a demonstration is less likely to make a big impact. Hands-on experiences like this can form powerful memories and inspire your students to consider engineering as a lifelong discipline and career.

Take this opportunity to let your students lead. Unless there's a specific safety consideration, or the device is unusually heavy, let your students be the ones to take the screwdriver, open up the device, and discover how it works. They will remember the trust you put in their ability to take responsibility, and in turn may begin to trust themselves.

Ultimately, you are the adult supervisor and you should use your best judgment in deciding when to step in and help a student. In an interview about his Tinkering School with NPR's TED Radio Hour, Gever Tulley explains that when students realize they're in an environment that is the opposite of being overprotected, "we suddenly see the children take much more responsibility for themselves." 

Putting it all back together again

What happens when you ask your students to reassemble their device? Can they find the pieces from before? Can they account for all their screws?

If you know in advance that you want to challenge your students by reassembling the device, you may want to encourage students to document their progress with digital photos in addition to diagrams.

When it's all back together again, proceed with caution. The adult supervisor, and not the student, should decide whether it is safe to add batteries or plug the device in to see if it works. 

Questions to ask your students

How many pieces are there? What does each piece do?  Can it be put back together? Does it work once reassembled?  Why or why not? What would it take to build this from scratch? What kinds of engineers or scientists would be needed to find the raw materials, to design the device, and to assemble it?

Perhaps the most important question of all, for a future engineer: How can you make it better?

Role models, STEM professionals in your classroom, and further reading

Want to make this activity even more memorable? Why not invite a STEM professional into your classroom for the day? For registered TAME Clubs, we offer connections to a STEM network across Texas that we've been building for over forty years--including scientists, engineers, researchers, programmers, and technicians. Click here for the TAME Club sign-up.

Role models help students imagine their future differently. Especially for students who might not ordinarily end up in a STEM career, a role model who looks like them or who comes from a similar background can help them believe in what's possible. Combined with a hands-on activity like disassembling a device they will use everyday, and you're offering your students an experience that could change their future.

We highly recommend this Techbridge article, How Hairdryers and Role Models Inspire Girls in Engineering. It offers excellent tips, statistics, anecdotes and photographs of engineer Lyn Gomes' experience leading a group of middle school girls through dismantling hairdryers.

Looking for more? 

These ideas come from our curated idea boards on Pinterest. If you liked these, you'll love our Engineering: Activities for All Ages board!

With over 4,000 pins organized into 47 different boards, TAME's Pinterest presence is specially curated to help teachers, parents, and students of all ages get excited about STEM. 

By Jessie Temple and Lindsey Carmichael, February 24, 2016.

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