My 2nd graders study structures, and our 2nd semester is spent on man-made structures. We start with bridges, and I usually challenge the students to make bridges out of different types of materials. Even though the activities always seem to engage them, I felt like I wasn’t quite making the lessons meaningful.
This year, I started simple by showing the students a BrainPop video about bridges and using our Depth and Complexity mats to discuss the video. This week, we reviewed a lot of the Language of the Discipline (they particularly like the word, “abutment,” – for obvious reasons), and they remembered quite a few from the video. Then I challenged them to do this activity. The students were good at connecting that their attempts at paper bridges were beam bridges, but they were definitely getting frustrated after about 10 minutes of trying and failing.
At this point, I would usually have shown them the solution on the teacher notes. But this time I asked them to pause while we looked at the shapes interactive on the Building Big site. After the students realized that triangles are the strongest shape, I asked them to apply that knowledge to some new attempts at the paper bridge challenge. I was surprised to see some of the creative options they developed.
I finally did show them the solution on the teacher guide, and they were quick to understand and explain why the change in the paper’s shape made it suddenly stronger, Then they came up with variations and improvements.
This was the first time I really felt like the students weren’t just having fun building bridges, but were actually stepping through learning while developing innovative ideas at the same time. They were explaining how the shapes they tried changed the force on the bridge, as well as how placing the load could affect the outcome.
As I watch many people on Twitter share “STEM” building challenges, I wonder how many, like my first attempts at bridge building lessons, might be more fun than educational. Though fun is great, I feel better now that the students have found a way to make a “bridge” between their enjoyment and their learning.