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Over the past decade, a mainstay for middle school science programs has been building toothpick bridges. This type of school project—somewhat of a rite of passage in Project Based Learning—is intended to help teach students through hands-on experience. Similar projects include baking soda volcanoes, the infamous egg drop, and growing plants as a class. I remember assigning the bridge project to my students, as well as helping my own children with it, but I have since learned that the typical way of tackling this school project can leave students feeling dissatisfied.
Traditionally, this project involves students designing a (hopefully) sturdy bridge with toothpicks or Popsicle sticks and glue. After gluing these tiny pieces of wood together in some fashion, they bring their masterpieces into the classroom and the entire class watches as the teacher tests each bridge and sees how many books each supports. Some projects collapse immediately, causing tears of frustration, and others, often the ugliest of all, win the prize; it seems to simply be a matter of luck.
Talking to my students about this school project was enlightening. Those who love it are typically students who own boxes and trays filled with Legos—they have money available to purchase large quantities of toothpicks and glue, spend lots of time testing their designs to get the desired results, or have parents who are willing to help them understand what they're doing and why. The majority of my students, however, complete the project feeling unsure of what they learned (Of course it failed; you can't build bridges with toothpicks), frustrated because their hours of work crashed with the first book (I don't understand why it did that!), or confused (Why do I need this? I'm not going to build bridges when I grow up).
Ultimately, the toothpick bridge project fails many students because it's not differentiated for varied student learning styles. I decided it was time to experiment with the execution of this assignment, and I now let students build their bridge with either the traditional toothpicks or with digital tools.
I start this project by giving my students a list of specific vocabulary (truss, span, deck, clearance, suspension, and arch) and ask them to define the terms. Vocabulary in hand, they watch a variety of bridge-building videos (there are plenty to choose from on YouTube) and do online research on what it takes to build a bridge. You can have your students dive into these resources individually or in small groups. Once they've soaked up this information, my students decide whether they want to go the traditional route or design a digital bridge.
Students who design a digital bridge use Google Drawings or Stoodle (a drawing tool that requires no login). Then I have them use a website, such as Autodesk, to digitally build their bridge based off specific input such as the materials, type of traffic, cost, and other factors. This site will build and test the bridge using software based on student input. If the bridge doesn't meet required standards, the student can rework the specs until it's right—no mess, no cost, no glue on your clothing, and no parent involvement.
There are, of course, students who find using technology to build a bridge intimidating. By offering both bridge-building options, I find that a much greater percentage of my students meet the lesson goals, which include working precisely, solving problems, and valuing evidence that's gained from research.
Going digital ended up improving a popular but dated project in my classroom. My students can now approach the assignment in a way that best fits their learning style, and because the digital version can be worked on at school, it doesn't discriminate against students who may not have the resources to complete the project at home. This will be my preferred approach unless a newer way to design a bridge comes along—who knows, maybe my students will be building hologram bridges in a few years!