Building Blocks to Careers: A Classroom Activity to Promote Career Awareness

By Matthew Roberts, Division of College, Career, and Technical Education

Setting students on a pathway to high-quality, in-demand careers in their communities should begin with career exploration in middle—or even elementary—school. The team at Tennessee Tech’s Millard Oakley STEM Center in Cookeville knows that students must be exposed to STEM fields like advanced manufacturing at an early age, so Dr. Scott Eddins has created a series of lesson plans that encourage career exploration. At this year’s Institute for CTE Educators, I participated in a lesson with Dr. Eddins called “Communication and the Manufacturing Process” where students in grades four and up work together to build a structure out of blocks, and—in the process—they build employability skills and learn about different jobs available in advanced manufacturing.

This activity, though, wasn’t just about building a structure. It also created an environment where students could use vocabulary from math lessons in a career-focused conversation. To successfully build the structure, participants had to feel comfortable describing parallel and perpendicular lines, hypotenuses of triangles, and shape names. This activity also allowed teachers to have conversations about the skills manufacturing employers want to see. As Dr. Eddins explained, employers expect workers to be comfortable with basic units of measurement and reading a ruler, so this activity was an easy vehicle to introduce this material at an early age to make sure students are prepared with the skills, including communication and teamwork, that employers want.

The goal of the activity is to be the first team to successfully complete the structure through collaboration and effective communication.  To do this activity, you’ll need one set of building blocks to construct the model structure and a matching set for each of your teams. It is important that each set includes the same set of blocks; make sure colors, sizes, and shapes all correspond to the model. Also include a piece of colored paper that has a corner cut out to serve as the foundation.

Follow these steps to conduct the activity:

  1. Divide your students into teams of seven or eight.
  2. Each team should create a company name and decide who will fill the following roles:
    1. Engineers (2) – Engineers are the only team members who are allowed to view the model structure.
    2. Site Managers (1) – Site managers receive information from engineers, condense it, and then relay it to supervisors.
    3. Supervisors (2) – Supervisors provide instructions to assembly line team members. These instructions come directly from the site manager, and supervisors may not touch any building materials.
    4. Assembly Line Team Members (remaining students) – These team members are responsible for building the structure based on information from the supervisor.
  3. Each team should have two stations on opposite ends of the classroom: one for the assembly team members to construct the building and one for the site managers to receive and give instructions (the site manager’s “office”).
  4. In a hidden area of the classroom or in the hallway, construct a model structure using the building blocks. Only engineers may view this structure.
  5. Engineers float between the completed structure and the site manager’s “office.” Supervisors float between the assembly line station and the site manager. However, only one person may speak to the site manager at a time.
  6. Students should receive 45 minutes total to complete the building. The first team to correctly complete the structure wins.

Additional considerations:

  • After about 15-20 minutes, visit with each team to verify that students are all using the same terms to communicate about the orientation of the building. Ask if all team members know where the front of the building is. As you confirm that groups know what the front of the building is, also make sure they have properly laid the foundation, or put the piece of colored paper in the correct position.
  • If your teams need assistance, you could allow groups that have properly laid the foundation to receive a “desktop computer” (piece of paper and pencil) for the site manager to use. Site managers only may draw the instructions received from the engineer, and this computer may not move from the site manager’s station.
  • When the activity is over, ask students how this process related to what they had learned in their classes and what strategies they had to use to be successful. This would be an ideal time to discuss how this process taught them employability skills and reinforced what they had learned in their math lessons.

Dr. Eddins and Tennessee Tech’s Oakley STEM Center provide assistance in developing classroom activities and also host field trips if your students want more hands-on experience. For more information about Tennessee Tech’s STEM Center, please visit These activities support Pathways Tennessee’s vision of preparing all Tennesseans from an early age for a career in their community. To learn more about the Pathways Tennessee framework, visit, email, and follow @Pathways_TN on Twitter.