The Total Package

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, August 23, 2006

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Product Design

Subject Area

  • Language Arts
  • Science
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

One fifty-minute class period


In this activity students will use the design process to solve a packaging problem. After examining the materials used in the packaging of everyday products, students gather and analyze information about a specific product, create a new design for the product and generate a written report that contains the suggested changes for the product.

National Standards

Standard 6. Understands relationships among organisms and their physical environment
Standard 14. Level III. Understands how human actions modify the physical environment 1. Understands the environmental consequences of people changing the physical environment (e.g., the effects of ozone depletion, climate change, deforestation, land degradation, soil salinization and acidification, ocean pollution, groundwater-quality decline, using natural wetlands for recreational and housing development) Standard 16. Level III. Understands the changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution and importance of resources 1. Understands the reasons for conflicting viewpoints regarding how resources should be used (e.g., attitudes toward electric cars, water-rationing, urban public transportation, use of fossil fuels, excessive timber cutting in old growth forests, buffalo in the western United States, soil conservation in semiarid areas) 2. Knows strategies for wise management and use of renewable, flow, and nonrenewable resources (e.g., wise management of agricultural soils, fossil fuels, and alternative energy sources; community programs for recycling or reusing materials)
Standard 1. Level III. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process 5. Uses content, style, and structure (e.g., formal or informal language, genre, organization) appropriate for specific audiences (e.g., public, private) and purposes (e.g., to entertain, to influence, to inform) 6. Writes expository compositions (e.g., states a thesis or purpose; presents information that reflects knowledge about the topic of the report; organizes and presents information in a logical manner, including an introduction and conclusion; uses own words to develop ideas; uses common expository structures and features, such as compare-contrast or problem-solution)
Working With Others


Students will do the following:
  • identify packaging problems of a product
  • design a prototype for an improved product package
  • compose a written report that contains recommendations for their new design


  • "Let's Make a Change" handout


  • A variety of everyday objects that use excessive or non-environmentally friendly packaging--product suggestions are listed in the activity.


Building Background

Packaging Problems

The purpose of this activity is to provide an opportunity for students to examine how products are packaged, as well as the costs surrounding packaging and the impact that packaging has on the environment. 1. Share and discuss the following quotation with your students: Did you know that up to one out of every $10 you spend at the store pays for packaging? When all packaging is accounted for, it adds up to about one-third of all the trash that's thrown away in the United States. 2. Explain to students that not all packaging is wasteful or undesirable. Brainstorm a list of the reasons why manufacturers use packaging for their products. Reasons might include the following: protects products from damage during shipping, protects products from contamination and spoilage, contains necessary information regarding the product, provides tamper-proof and child resistant safeguards. 3. Share with your class an example of an item that uses excess packaging and an item that uses "smarter" packaging.  Involve the students in a discussion about how the items were packaged.

Steps for Learning Let's Make Some Changes

The purpose of this activity is to provide students with an opportunity to use the steps of the design process to solve a product-packaging problem. 1. Divide the class into small groups. Give each group a copy of the "Let's Make A Change" handout and an item that contains excess packaging. Teacher Note: Suggestions for products that use excess and/or non-environmentally friendly materials include individually wrapped containers of applesauce with foil lids, an Oscar Meyer Lunchable, a Campbell's Quick Lunch Microwaveable, McDonald's Happy Meal, Dentyne Ice Gum, and M&M Minis. 2. Ask students to imagine that the companies that produce their assigned product have asked them to design a new, less-wasteful and more environmentally friendly package for the item. Explain to students that they are going to analyze the item and make recommendations for how the package design could be improved to use less, and/or more environmentally friendly materials. Teacher Note: The written report mentioned in step five below may be completed as a homework assignment. You may also choose to have the groups prepare a PowerPoint type presentation and present their design to the "company" officials.



 Create a class rubric with your students that will help them understand the effectiveness of their design process. Use the following guidelines to help create the rubric.

-How effective was your brainstorming in generating ideas? Excellent          Good            Adequate            Poor -Rate how effectively you analyzed the information you used to identify your problem. Excellent          Good            Adequate            Poor -Rate the effectiveness of your solution. Excellent          Good            Adequate            Poor -Rate how clearly you communicated the problem you wanted to solve. Excellent          Good            Adequate            Poor -Rate how clearly you communicated your solution. Excellent          Good            Adequate            Poor -Rate your effectiveness as problem solvers. Excellent          Good            Adequate            Poor

Enrichment Extension Activities

Mini Landfill
Build a mini landfill in your class. Fill the landfill with a variety of packaging materials. Observe which packaging materials break down in the landfill. There are several Internet sites that provide instructions for the creation of a mini landfill. You may find one of these or use the instructions on the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection website.

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