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Friday, April 24, 2015

Stem in the Classroom - Part 2

After our initial experience with Building a Sail Car (read about it here) my students (and I) were HOOKED with these building challenges! I knew I had to capitalize on their enthusiasm and determination and continue this type of learning!

However, changes had to be made to make sure it was a true and balanced learning experience.  This means starting with a REAL plan.  It just so happened that I stumbled across (while actively searching for appropriate & challenging STEM-type activities) this great resource geared for students in grades 4-8: Bridges: An Integrated Stem Teaching Guide provided by Elmer's in cooperation with STEMfest The Works.    It provided a lot of the structure I needed to proceed: Objectives, Discussion Questions, Research Activities & Hands On Activities.

Activate Prior Knowledge: To begin, I read the story: Bridges Are to Cross by Philemon Sturges with stunning illustrations by Giles Laroche.  This quick but engaging book shared different types of bridges (from ones that carry llamas loaded with firewood to covered bridges that are located in a neighboring state!).  Students were quick to share stories and make connections: "I've been to a bridge like that when my family went skiing in New Hampshire!" "My dad's been to the London Bridge!" "I know that bridge is in California - I've seen it in movies!"

Students also read selected passages from "": Building a Bridge (fiction) and it's paired reading text: Building a Better Mousetrap.  Because these were geared for fifth grade, the students used the "Partner Reading Strategy."

Share the Challenge: After reading the book I told the students that they would be building bridges in the classroom!  Lots of excitement, fist pumps & oh yeahs went around the room.  Many assumed we would be using craft sticks.  I waited until after the research to share the news that they would be building PAPER bridges!

Research: Students were asked to discover the different types of bridges.  They were given a handout with 4 different pictures and were asked to identify the type as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each!  Students were given the mnemonic: BATS to further interest them. (Beam, Arch, Truss, Suspension).  I found several websites that provided great information for the students. Some of the students found even better resources and shared with the class! Talk about student leaders!! (This wouldn't be possible without our recently "donated" Chromebooks to help out! If you'd like to help us further please visit my Donor's Choose page - we appreciate any/all donations on our newest project - it makes a difference EVERYDAY especially in activities such as these!!)

The Challenge: The first challenge in the Elmer's Guide is 'Building a Paper Bridge' that can hold 100 pennies! The parameters included using only 2 pieces of paper, no tape only glue (after all this was promoted by Elmer's!) and certain dimensions for width and span. Impossible you say? Students thought so too! 


Planning:  Before building could start, students had to PLAN their designs.  Reminding them about the Sail Car Challenge I mentioned how many said they wished they took more time to planI also mentioned that they would be getting 4 pieces of paper which meant that they REALLY had to plan carefully as resources would be limited.  Sharing the "Engineering Design Process" with the students helped them formulate, plan, create, improve upon and redesign if necessary.  Students used this graphic organizer.  One student even made 'secret' Blueprints!! Students were instructed to record their design changes.  (This is where I need help to make it easier for them to do this. I think a journal next time would make it easier.)

The Activity:  The day finally arrived and students began discussing, designing and building. A gentle reminder that only 2 pieces of paper could be used.  Rulers were gathered and measuring began. The bridges' piers were set in place.  More discussion, more measuring...."I think we should make an arch bridge because it's stronger." "How can we make this paper stronger?" "Don't forget it has to be 3 inches wide." "Let's ask if we can use tape!"  After about 20 minutes we had to stop to attend music.  Students wanted to leave things set up and try again after.  We spend about another 20 minutes after music and still hadn't finished. I've learned you can't RUSH these things.   We decided we would pick up again the next day and try again.

Post Activity: After day 2 one student successfully completed the challenge as her bridge held 102 pennies! Unfortunately, students didn't finish before we went on vacation.  So this activity will be resumed.  Students will complete a reflection (using Google Forms) and we'll gather as a group to talk about why the designs worked/didn't work. We'll again go back to our research and discuss the different types of bridges. We will also discuss ways to improve upon the Design Process.  More research will be conducted and other challenges to complete.  The other challenges include: the Bridge Tower Challenge, The Truss Bridge Challenge & the Toothpick Bridge Challenge.  Hopefully, the students will continue to be excited about these different challenges and learning opportunities.

While this activity was frustrating for some (as they wanted desperately to complete this challenge) I saw some wonderful learning happening.  Students from different groups helping each other with their designs - sharing what they thought would work or why the design might not work.  Referring to research websites and using great vocabulary while discussing the bridge in relation to the weight of the pennies.  Lots of measuring was happening during the challenge.  Students working on "attending to precision and persevering in problem solving" (these are 2 of the Standards of Mathematical Practices we've been working on in math!).  So many areas of the curriculum accessed in this one challenge! You gotta love it! WE DO!

Challenge for YOU: What ideas or suggestions could you make to help students record their design changes?

Resources Used:
Easy Science for Kids - Bridge Facts
PBS: Building Big - Bridge Basics
PBS: Building Big - The Bridge Challenge (Interactive)
KidsKonnect - Bridge Facts & Information
eHow: Advantages & Disadvantages of Types of Bridges
IKNS Bridges: A Wikispace - Strengths & Weaknesses 

Resource found by Sarah, a Girl Scout studying Engineering: Historic Bridges