Friday, January 6, 2017

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Bridge Challenge & STEM Activities

A bridge challenge is a STEM activity that requires creativity and clever thinking. It makes a wonderful team building project, and is accessible to any age level--preschool, elementary, middle, or high school!

Bridges are everywhere! Kids love them! Adults love them (or at least I do, lol)! And there are LOADS of ways to engage kids in the learning process while they create bridges!!

Today I'm going to share why bridge challenges are a STEM activity, a little information about the types of bridges and famous examples, and some examples of bridge challenges that are appropriate for each age group! Feel free to scroll down to whatever section you're interested in!

Why bridge challenges are a STEM activity:

A bridge challenge engages at least four subjects that have become isolated in a traditional school setting: science (scientific reasoning, scientific method, hypothesis, testing, analyzing), technology (whatever tools you use to build, measure, and test bridges), engineering (physics, gravity, architecture), and mathematics (measuring and testing). Additionally, you can tie in art (with architecture and engineering), history (with real bridges), and geography (culture and tradition associated with famous - and not so famous - bridges). Because of the art aspect, many teachers consider bridge challenges a "STEAM" project (an activity that includes science, technology, engineering, art, and math).

Types of bridges and famous examples:

There are at least four major types of bridges: arch bridges, beam bridges, truss bridges, and suspension bridges. There are definitely others, but these are probably the most common.

Arch bridges use one or more arches as the main supportive structure - the arch is always below the bridge in order to support it. Examples include the Glen Canyon Bridge in Arizona and the Friendship Bridge between Paraguay and Brazil:

Glen Canyon Bridge:

Friendship Bridge:

Beam bridges use beams to support the bridge, like the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisana.

Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge:

Truss bridges use criss-crossing triangles and diamonds to support the bridge. Truss bridges are very popular, but I'm only including two examples: the Sewickly Bridge goes over the Ohio River and the Kingston–Rhinecliff Bridge in New York.

Sewickly Bridge:

Kingston–Rhinecliff Bridge:

Suspension bridges support the bridge using ropes or cables that hang from one or more tall vertical towers (or suspenders). The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California is a very popular example:

Bridge Challenges:

So what kind of STEM bridge challenges can you do with kids? They can make models of any of the different types of bridges! You can challenge them to work as a group or individually. Challenge them to build the tallest or longest bridge (and measure it with rulers or tape measures), the strongest bridge (test it!), the heaviest bridge (weigh them!), or any other variety you can imagine! 

Your youngest children (incuding toddlers and preschoolers) will enjoy bridge challenges the most when they are naturally integrated into playtime. So when you have blocks or or other toys out, say something like, "Let's pretend this towel is a river and we need to build a bridge to get our people over it!" You can start the building, but your kiddos will join in very quickly!! LEGO, DUPLO, and other interlocking blocks work really well for young children and help them build eye-hand coordination and finger strength. Our children also love to build bridges and towers with wooden blocks, lincoln logs and magnetic building toys. (I'll put affiliate links at the end of this post for all these!) The best part is putting figures on top of the bridge and "helping" them walk to safety!

Preschoolers and kindergarteners especially love interlocking blocks like LEGO because they can connect pieces and watch their buildings stay built for a long time.

There are a TON of inexpensive, every-day-materials challenges you can give them as well! We made truss-style bridges in this construction project:

and suspension style bridges in this bridge challenge:

  This age group also loves to make toothpick can connect them with marshmallows, apples, candies, and more! Here's a tower project we made with toothpicks and apples -- you can use the same concept for a bridge:

You can also do seasonal bridge activities with this age is a beam style bridge challenge we made with candy canes:

Elementary aged children are ready for more intense building projects... and they love them! You can actually use any of these types of projects with children in elementary, middle, or high school, but you can expect increasingly more complex results from older children. Some of my favorites that I have done with older kids include:

Toothpick bridges: let your kiddos glue toothpicks together to create a bridge model in any of the above styles! We've used hot glue, wood glue, and Elmer's glue--some take longer to dry than others, but they all work wonderfully! I usually have to limit them to 400 or 1,000 (or any number you choose) toothpicks, depending on the project and age. If you don't have the time for a big toothpick bridge project, you can use marshmallows, apples, or candy for these kids too -- they will still have a great time, but their bridges won't be quite as strong.

Paper bridges: This used to be one of my favorite team-building projects when I taught science. Give each group (or child) an identical number of sheets of paper (as little as 3 or as high as 10, depending on your time) and strip of tape (I usually did one meter), and challenge them to create the strongest bridge possible in 30 minutes. Variations include using newspaper and/or challenging them to make the longest or tallest bridge (though I personally love strongest is incredibly fun to set the bridge between two tables and see it support a pile of books on top of it!). I usually let them use scissors too...after all, professional engineers have decent tools at their disposal!

Craft stick bridges: just like the toothpick bridges, make these with craft sticks and wood. It takes a little while, but the kids really love their final products. Here is a great description of one family's craft stick bridge project!
Older children are also capable of making more realistic models of each type of bridge. I haven't ever thought it was necessary to represent each type of bridge in one project, but if you're looking for that there are some great pictures here!

Straw bridges are suprisingly strong and just as much fun to work with as toothpicks and craft sticks! Just use tape instead of glue. ;)

We've also made bridges with food, pipe cleaners, toys, blankets, chairs, and many other (random!) objects. If you tell your kids the floor is lava, they WILL find a way across...and it will be an exciting experience for you all!!

Also, ALL ages LOVE seeing a real-life bridge they made themselves being used to cross a real life gap (even if it's very shallow)! If you can take your kids to a river or gulley and let them build a real bridge, they will remember it much longer than any project you do on a desk. It has been over a year since our kids gave themselves this bridge challenge, and they still want to "check on it" every time we drive nearby:

A few more resources:

If you're planning some STEM bridge challenges, you may find these resources helpful:

* A printable bridge unit with student handouts - most appropriate for kids in upper elementary and older

* 5-lesson bridge unit most appropriate for middle school and high school students

* A fun collection of famous bridges, with a link to the history of bridges

Amazon Affiliate Links:

These are some of my favorite building toys for young (and old!) children. We have them all and I can recommend them strongly -- building bridges and any other building project is always fun when we integrate these into playtime. You can have great times without them, but if you're looking for a toy, I'd start with these. Each image is an Amazon affiliate link.

I'm sharing these bridge challenges and STEM activities in the A-Z STEM Series at Little Bins for Little Hands! You'll find lots of other great resources there too!

Happy Educating,

I may share at any of these parties!

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