student-made chicken coops

How to build a better (student-made) chicken coop

Applying NGSS to… chickens?

Real World PBLAt the Dorset School, in Dorset VT, the 8th graders know that fresh, farm-raised eggs taste amazing. The problem: their cafeteria cannot afford local, free-range eggs. So they asked: “What would it take to raise chickens at the school?”

And they used a combination of design engineering, technology and community partners to find out.




Step 1: Define the problem.

Identify situations that people want changed as problems that can be solved through engineering (NGSS For States, By States).

Students began by deciphering the terms that show up on egg boxes: “conventional”, “cage-free”, “free-range”, “organic”, and “pasture farmed”.

What makes all these types of eggs different? The conditions the chickens are kept in! After much discussion, students decided pasture farming is the best for chickens and the humans who eat their eggs. Happy chickens get to spend time outside doing what they love to do — namely eat bugs and grasses — and they produce eggs with higher nutrient values for us to eat.

Their research led to other important considerations: the amount of space each chicken needs, the living conditions required for a flock of laying hens, and the basic needs farmers must provide to keep chickens happy and healthy.

But the research could only take them so far, hands-on experience would provide for the rest.

Step 2: Empathy for design

Visiting a local farm helped them define the problem further.

student-made chicken coops

On a chilly winter day, Dorset’s 8th graders visited the Brand Farm to learn more from both the farmer and the chickens. The Brand Farm is a pasture farm that doesn’t even use fences! Instead, Great Pyrenees dogs guard the chickens day and night.  

student-made chicken coops

Students observed the chickens and fed them. They surveyed the coops and measured the nesting boxes, windows, vents, and other features.

They deepened their understanding of the problem by asking the farmer questions:

  • How do you keep the water from freezing?  
  • Can you keep the chickens warm when it gets cold?
  • How do you clean the coop?

Step 3: Develop solutions

Convey possible solutions through visual or physical representations (NGSS For States, By States).

Once back in school students put their research to work. Stepping into the “shoes” of both chicken and farmer informed the students’ chicken coop designs. In collaborative work groups, they created original blueprints in Planner 5D for chicken coops that met both the farmer’s and chicken’s needs.  

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Some things they had to keep in mind:

  • Square footage required for each chicken
  • Insulation
  • Ventilation
  • Nesting boxes
  • Food and water
  • Safety
  • Features that make it possible to clean the coop
  • Materials

Blueprints led to models

Students used basic materials to create a model of their coop that allowed them to show off their design features and share it with a larger audience. For some teams, names were also important: the Poultry Palace, Castillo de Huevos, and The Chick Magnet to name a few. 

student-made chicken coops

Step 4: Optimize

Compare solutions, test them, and evaluate them (NGSS For States, By States).

student-made chicken coops

Each group demonstrated their model and explained their design to the entire 8th grade, along with teachers, parents, and community members.

student-made chicken coops

While they presented their work, students and adults captured “Wows and Wonders.”

  • Wows are warm feedback: notes on things that are exemplary, interesting, or impressive.
  • Wonders are cooler feedback: notes on features that might be problematic or could be improved upon. The audience also captured any questions they had about the design.

Students were given time individually to reflect on the design process, their role in the group, and on the feedback they received. They were also encouraged to “steal” ideas from other group’s designs. Back in their small group, they planned to revise their design based on their reflections.  

Step 5: To the build!

Revisions are finalized, and students plan to build in the spring. The class will choose one design and improve it. They plan to write letters to local organizations and businesses seeking materials and donations. They will work with the custodian to find the best site for the coop. And they will collaborate with the school food services staff to include the eventual eggs in school meals. 

How have you used design engineering to improve a build process?

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