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Building bridges

3 min read


As we began our structures unit in Grade 7 this year, students were amazed by the Popsicle bridge structures that lined the classroom from years gone by. I told the class there would be no Popsicle stick bridge project this year, and at first I was met with some questions from my students. Even though during the unit we had done hands-on labs using straws and wood to build structures, they still asked me, “Why not?,” and there was my opportunity. In this computer-based project, students would work under the premise of a “problem” (problem-based learning pedagogy) to understand and use computer software to design and build bridge structures.

In this project, students would use the West Point Bridge Design software to explore the world of engineering through an innovative bridge-design project that brings together their love of technology, their knowledge of science and the engineering behind these structures. The purpose of this project was to re-design a bridge that had failed using the steps of the engineering-design process.

The process

  • I showed the class videos about bridge failure — both new and old — to peak their interest in design and creation.
  • Students partnered in teams for cooperative learning and to complete daily design challenges that had to meet a certain set of requirements that I set out, and the teams then needed to build and design to the criteria.
  • I gave the class “twists” while they were re-designing bridges that had once failed. For example, half way through their build, they might be told: “Your budget has been reduced by 50%.” This greatly enhances their critical-thinking skills while they negotiate price for safety with their team partner.
  • Students reflected in science journals after each class to track their progress, goals for the day, and successes and challenges of the design process. One student wrote: “Today my partner and I had a very successful day. We started out with a cost of $850,000 but we lowered the cost to $230,732. We were able to do this by lowering the arch, changing the beams that were under tension to be hollow and thinner. We could have even tried to make the piers under tension more thin.”
  • Many students also took pictures of their design in order to track their learning, something that I didn’t even describe as being a requirement of the journal. The process of reflection is a major component to this project as it shows students the steps they have taken, any challenges they have faced, and hopefully overcome in order to see their growth of knowledge.
  • Students presented their new designs to the class and explain their engineering design process

The outcome

Students were challenged to creatively blend science, technology, engineering and math concepts, and to think critically about budget, forces such as tension and compression and aesthetic appeal of their design. The problem of re-designing a failed bridge drives their learning, which is the essence of why problem based learning works well for these students. This both motivates and ingrains deep learning during the project and for a long time after the project is complete.

Shantel Popp (@MsPoppScience) is a science teacher and technology advocate in Ontario, Canada She has been a teacher at Holy Trinity School in Richmond Hill since 2012. With an avid interest in teaching with technology, Shantel continues to take courses, work with teaching partners and share ideas with other faculty.