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Secrets of Lost Empires I -- Pyramid

Ideas from Teachers

(Gr. 1-3)
I used NOVA's "Secrets of Lost Empires: Medieval Siege" Web site with my students. I teach a blended class of grades one through three. We've been studying castle life, different types of jobs, and the like. Since I have mostly boys, the weapons part is very attractive to them.

First we built both a trebuchet and a battering ram out of K'nex pieces. (The hardest part of the trebuchet is the sling; we still haven't figured that part out completely.)

Then my students visited the "Medieval Siege" Web site. The kids particularly liked playing the Destroy the Castle interactive. It was a lot of fun to see how the concepts they had learned from reading other materials and building their model could be applied in an interactive way on the computer.

Our next step will be to mount the trebuchet on wheels to see if this reduces the recoiling, as mentioned in the program. If you'd like a picture of our machines, please e-mail me.

Sent in by
Debbie Schwarzer
Oak Hill Academy
Los Altos, CA

(Gr. 2-8)
To construct a very simple model of a Chinese Rainbow Bridge.


  • craft sticks
  • dowel rods
  • masking tape
  • rubber bands
  • card stock

Refer to the following page for detailed instructions for five different bridge models. Each model includes photos of each step.

Or search for "Centex Naturalist" using Google. Click on "Science Curriculum & Ecology" in the menu at the top of the page and then click on "Chinese Rainbow Bridge."

Sent in by
Jerry Evans
St. Mary Elementary
Temple, TX

(Gr. 3-6)
This activity could go with NOVA's "Medieval Siege" program. In groups or individually, make a trebuchet out of LEGOs building blocks. Discuss the different designs and encourage students to make their own interpretations.

Sent in by
Melissa Erbe
Joliet Area HomeSchool Fellowship
Joliet, IL

(Gr. 3-8)
This idea could be used with NOVA's "China Bridge" program. Students can construct a model of the Rainbow Bridge using coffee stirrers, pipe cleaners, thread, and index cards. I'm currently working on this lesson. Please e-mail me for more information.

Sent in by
Jerry Evans
Temple Independent School District
Temple, TX

(Gr. 4-8)
NOVA's "Medieval Siege" program can be used to connect science and history with an environmental unit on forest destruction.

Spend some time in class talking about the regret expressed in the program over cutting down the old-growth tree for the trebuchet throwing arm. Then use "Bonny Portmore," a traditional Celtic folk song, to introduce a student-led study of how environmental destruction affected the people of the middle ages and today.

Go to for the lyrics. The song laments the leveling of Ireland's old oak forests for military and shipbuilding purposes.

Sent in by
Naomi Schoenfeld
El Mirage Elementary
El Mirage, AZ

(Gr. 6)
This idea could be used with NOVA's "Pyramid, "Obelisk," or "Pharaoh's Obelisk" programs. In the past we have taught the students to write their name using hieroglyphics. This year we are not only writing them, we are also making a cartouche (out of clay), creating several editions of the Egyptian Times Magazine (with articles on the building of the Great Pyramid, Akhenaton, Tut—when he becomes king—death, discovery of tomb, and on Ramses II), and using one wall of the classroom to create a "burial chamber" for our "mummy." We're working in groups of four and will be using a lot of material from the Web. I have made sure that each group contains at least one student who has Web access at home (we're still waiting for the Web at school). If you would like to write to me I have tons of information and can give advice on how to do this with only one computer in the classroom.

Sent in by
Cara Best
Krueger Middle School
San Antonio, TX

(Gr. 6)
Use the This Old Pyramid program in this series to capture the interest of students for a unit study on Egypt. The math goes right into a study of geometry. I made a study guide to go with it. If you are interested in learning more about the guide, contact

Sent in by
Brenda Lium
Agassiz Middle School
Fargo, ND

(Gr. 7-12)
To integrate the design process and drafting to cross curricular classwork in Science, History, Algebra, and English.


  • catapult materials: straws, plastic spoons, plastic cups, string, paper, hot glue sticks, mousetrap, craft sticks, masking tape, rubber bands, pipe cleaners, CDs, index cards

  • projectiles: large marshmallows, suction cup balls

  • targets: 5 gallon bucket, floor points, bulls eye target for board

  • access to Internet

Review the competition rules with students.

Each team will be provided with a junk box filled with materials that could be used to create a launching device. Each team will receive only one set of materials.

Teams may use all or part of the materials in their junk box and are not allowed to share materials with other teams. All unused materials should be saved in case repairs are needed during competition.

Teams will be allowed time to build and test their devices. Competitors are allowed to bring diagrams to help them build their devices. After the time is up, all devices will be impounded and no changes will be allowed.

Testing Procedure
Each team will be allowed 5 minutes to prepare for the first trial. Teams will be allowed 5 minutes between trials to make repairs using the remaining materials in their junk box. No new construction or major design changes are allowed once competition begins.

Teams will be allowed three trials to earn points. The device must remain behind the launch area boundary during the launch. Points will be awarded based on the location of the projectile on the target. Projectiles that do not remain on the target will not receive points. The team with the most points (sum of all three trials) will be declared the winner.

In the case of a tie, teams will be allowed one additional trial to earn points.

Earning Points/Targets
Three targets will be available to earn points.

  1. A floor target. Award from 5 points to 20 points.

  2. A bucket. Projectile(s) must land in bucket. Award 150 points per projectile.

  3. Suction "sticky" balls. These may be aimed at the target on the board. Award from 20 to 50 points.

Students have a rubric from which I grade them. They will receive a project grade for the rubric, one for construction, and one for testing. They will receive daily grades for participation, their coat of arms or flag, and an Internet scavenger hunt.

Classroom Tips
I have adapted and integrated information and ideas from NOVA and Discovery's Junk Box Wars.

For additional information about this idea, including student handouts, please contact Michelle Hendrick at mhend005 at neisd dot net

Sent in by
Michelle Hendrick
Madison High School
San Antonio, TX

(Gr. 8-12)
Here is an idea that could be used with NOVA's "China Bridge" program. I decided that my AP Physics classes and I would build a smaller version of the China Bridge to be used permanently at a local park as a footbridge. My students have all previously done bridge engineering contests where they build models that are later stressed until they break. We wanted something bigger than a desktop, that would not be thrown away, broken, or stored in an attic someplace. We wanted something real that will be useful long after the project is over. This is our first attempt. We have the program, and access to the information on the Internet. If there are any other materials relating to the China Bridge that others could send us, it would be greatly appreciated. For example, we understand (or think we do) the basic interweaving of the timbers for the arch, but we have limited understanding of how the railings and their supports are constructed. Can anyone offer any assistance? Please e-mail me any comments.

Sent in by
Gordon R. Haueter
Davis High School
Kaysville, UT

(Gr. 9-12)
We show NOVA's "Secrets of Lost Empires II: Medieval Siege" program when we do our catapult project. This project involves a thorough investigation on projectile motion.

Students design and build working catapults and then perform calculations at various angles. The students also prepare detailed PowerPoint presentations on the history of catapults and their use in Medieval times and the basics of projectile motion.

Please visit our Web page for more a detailed description of the lesson plan:

Sent in by
Dolores Gende
Holy Innocents' Episcopal School
Atlanta, GA

(Gr. 9-12)
I've requested that all Latin students in our school watch NOVA's "Roman Bath" program. There will be slightly different follow-up activities for each age group. All groups will work with the vocabulary items as Latin words.

Latin I students will look at the baths as part of a Roman city, and discuss their significance to the growth of the Empire. This will coordinate with the idea of the Romans as builders of roads, etc.

Latin II students will look more in-depth at the engineering aspects of the project. Since many of the Latin II students are in physics classes, this will provide an example of the functions of stress points, temperature, air and gas flow, etc.

Latin III students will discuss the significance of the baths in the social and political climate of Rome. When possible, we will find examples of their prominence as mentioned by Pliny, Augustus, and other writers.

Finally, Latin IV will discuss some of the same material as Latin III. They will also review items read from Petronius in semester one this year, which were set in the baths in a town near the Bay of Naples.

Anyone interested in more detailed lesson plans may contact me via email.

Editor's note: To read an extended description of this idea, see Featured Teachers.

Sent in by
Nick Young
Univ of Detroit Jesuit High
Detroit, MI

(Gr. 9-12)
I use NOVA's "Medieval Siege" program to supplement our unit on projectile motion. Students use parametric equations (for two dimensions), build a catapult, and launch water balloons 70 meters to try to hit me. I sit (with lots of protection, including a helmet and very thick jacket) on a chair and wait for the shots. Points are awarded for how close they get to me. Direct hits are worth the most. Students write the model for their launches. It is lots of fun and they get REAL excited when the balloons land close.

Editor's note: To read an extended description of this idea, see Featured Teachers.

Sent in by
Bruce Kelly
Sumner High School
Sumner, WA

(Gr. 9-High School/Early College)

To work in groups to build a catapult designed to hurl a 1 kilogram (2.2 pound) mass as far as possible.


  • wood
  • rubber
  • plastic
  • carbon fiber
  • metal
  • rope


I show NOVA's "Medieval Siege" program to kick off our area-wide scientific competition called "Newton's Challenge."

In the catapult event, our students work in groups of 3-4 to build a catapult using the materials listed. Students are given some basic guidelines to hurl a 1 kilogram mass as far as possible. The size is 1 cubic meter or smaller when in the ready-to-launch position.

The students learn many lessons including:

  • working together in a group through stress and to achieve a goal.

  • using tools and materials that may be unfamiliar to many.

  • overcoming and solving problems as they arise.

  • bringing a design to life.

  • following basic safety measures.

  • how to design a web page (students must make a site detailing their various devices and progress).

The program gives students ideas of how to work together and develop some design ideas. The competition gives us a chance to recognize our science students with various prizes and challenge them in the process.


  • Design and concept interview (20%)

  • Teamwork/individual review (20%)

  • Results/distance when compared to minimum required distance (60%)

Sent in by
Robert Stanley
Highlands Christian Academy
Pompano Beach, FL

(Gr. 10-12)
The following projects could be used with any of NOVA's "Secrets of Lost Empires" programs.

Structural Mechanics
Experiments in Structural Engineering

As one component of the Jenifer Junior High School's college-preparatory course "Applied Imagination," students develop three-dimensional solutions to creative structural problems. Each of the projects described below is performance-based, with specific rubrics outlining what mastery and proficiency level work will entail.

Structures 1: Paper Power Patterns
Outcome: To be able to maximize the structural integrity of a limited resource.
Key terms: stress, strain, normal, compression, tension, torsion, shearing, modulus of elasticity
Materials: transparency masters, student booklet (blackline master), lecture notes.

Structures 2: The Towers of Babel
Outcome: To be able to overcome and manage the instability of a system to maximize its performance.
Key terms: coefficient of friction
Materials: transparency masters, student booklet (blackline master)
Feature: a team activity.

Structures 3: Strategemini
Outcome: To be able to adapt and use a known design feature to a new situation in which additional components are required for successful completion.
Key Terms: lever (first, second and third class), law of equilibrium
Materials: transparency masters, student booklet (blackline master)
Feature: an activity for dyads.

Structures 4: Pylon Pendantics
Outcome: To be able to manage a structure dependent only on tension.
Key terms: picket points, shearing
Materials: transparency master, student booklet (blackline master).

Complimentary Projects
Imagineering (applicable mechanical engineering projects)

Outcome: To maximize the capacity of a system of parts to perform a specific function.

Span Splinters
Outcome: To be able to maximize the structural integrity of an inherently unstable structure.

Outcome: See "Span Splinters." This is an advanced level project.

Editor's note: For more detailed information on any of these structures projects, or a copy of the full lesson plans, please contact Steven Branting. All projects come with transparency and blackline masters.

Sent in by
Steven Branting
Jenifer Junior High School
Lewiston, ID

(Gr. 11-12)
This activity could be used with NOVA's "Medieval Siege" program. I have a small class of eight students in Physics, and I split them into two teams of four. Step I: Each team drew and built a prototype 2-foot model of a trebuchet. They used the computer program WINTREBSTAR3 for their drawings. Next, they tested the model and compared the actual (field test) with the theory (computer program). We used old computer mouses to fling!

Step II: Each team build a 6-foot trebuchet and compared as before as well as compared to the protoype by ratio. Each team flung a ripe cantelope! (Some grocery stores will give them away for free.) Measurements were taken by students and recorded in a journal that was handed in at the end of the unit. Printouts of the program were also a must to find percent errors. For more information, please contact me.

Sent in by
Todd E. Mikkelsen
Southland High School
Adams, MN

Teacher's Guide
Secrets of Lost Empires I -- Pyramid

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