Grade: all
Subject: other

#312. Modern Times-- The Assembly Line

, level: all
Posted by David Sheehan (
Churchill Alternative H.S., Eugene, Or.
Materials Required: cardboard, packing tape, exacto blades, paint
Activity Time: 3 hours
Concepts Taught: Mass production/new industrial age

I use Charlie Chaplain's "Modern Times" to get at the idea of mass production and what it means to us as a society--what we gain/what we lose. It's not strictly Industrial rev., more like new industrial age, but it covers the idea of mass production versus cottage industry pretty well.
After we've talked about cottage industry and the move to mass or factory production, I show about 15 minutes of the film, Modern Times. This usually elicits a pretty good discussion of how things are built in this day and age opposed to preindustrialized times. (I may or may not get into Henry Ford's assembly line.) We look around the room and see how many things we can identify that were built via mass production, and how many things we can identify that were built by hand or cottage industry, so to speak.
When we have a pretty good grip on this concept, I give the class the assignment of setting up a factory or assembly line to turn out a product-- of late the product has been a classroom set of white or black 6"x6"x6" cardboard cubes (name your company, ACME cubes, for instance). I always make one cube before hand to demonstrate what the cube should look like. You'll need cardboard (recycled boxes), masking or paper packing tape (better), and exacto blades (better) or scissors, and tempra paints/brushes, ( a good dose of patience and humor is also advised). Briefly, each student has a job or jobs; some measure, some cut, some tape pieces together, some paint, etc. Team work is the key. Somebody should also be in charge of quality control at the end of the line. Students can leap frog around if one area gets too slow or too fast. They'll figure it out. Depending on the age of your students, you can assign tasks or the students can elect foremen or forewomen and let them run the show.
I've done this activity with middle and high school students in groups no larger than 20 students. For a bigger group I'd make two teams (maybe call 'em Ford and Chevy) and let them compete for speed and quality. When your kids have turned out the assigned product in the assigned quantity (one cube per student), and cleaned up the factory we discuss whether the product would be better assembled in a cottage industry fashion or in mass production fashion--pro and cons/what is gained and what is lost?
Finally, allow each student to paint the cube in anyway they choose, or go into a lesson on design and lay out some parameters for decoration (ie. no dice, or a different face on each side of the cube, or something that wraps around). This is a return to cottage industry. You'll get some very cool art projects out of this lesson, and the cubes look great when you hang them with fishing line and a paper clip from light fixtures etc. in the classroom.
If you want, play some fast music (like William Tell's overture or Flight of the Bumble Bee) when the assembly line is up and running. It's a hoot.