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Tips About Building Bridges in STEM

Tips About Building Bridges in STEM

One of the very first structures I ever built with students was a bridge. Boy, I could have used some tips about building bridges right then!

This was many, many years ago when I was the Science Club sponsor. At one of our club meetings, I gave students some spaghetti strands (uncooked), some tape, and a cup of pennies. Their task was to build a bridge that would hold the pennies.

Who knew that one day I would be standing in a STEM Lab, looking around, trying to decide what on earth to do with multiple classes?

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The Dilemma

When you teach multiple grade levels you encounter several little problems.

Do I repeat activities across grade levels? The short answer is yes. However, I change the rules of the task and may add extra materials for some grades. 

Do I ever repeat challenges without making changes? Yes! One of our very favorite challenges is Roller Coasters. It is definitely a fourth-grade challenge, but I will repeat it for 5th-grade classes as a reward or as a spontaneous challenge. (Example: when a class has a large number of students absent.)

Are some challenges only for certain grades? They are for me! My fifth graders are the only ones who complete Newton’s Cradles, Catapults, and the  Bungee Jump Challenge. This is due to the use of glue guns or math that is not suitable for 4th graders. Third graders are the only ones who complete simple parachutes- because this challenge is easier.

What about just changing the rules a little? Ah, that is what this post is about! I am going to share some challenges that are competed by different grade levels.

They just happen to all be BRIDGES! I am including tips about building bridges for each grade.

First Grade

Keep it simple! First graders do not need extravagant materials or a huge scenario for what they are building. The best way is to show them a short video or read part of a picture book to introduce the challenge. Our favorite Bridge book is Twenty One Elephants by Phil Bildner. It is the story of the Brooklyn Bridge being tested by circus elephants. First graders love this book! TIP: Think about paraphrasing most of the book and showing the pictures- to save time. First graders will get the wiggles if you read the whole book. They are anxious to get busy building a bridge.

The Challenge: Using connecting cubes and craft sticks ( and a little bit of tape) build a bridge. I discovered quickly that first graders want ramps for their bridges. They invented some very imaginative ways to create the ramps so cars could travel over the bridge.

Second Grade

Again, keep it simple! That is seriously the best tip I can give you about building bridges. These youngest engineers will not need more than a few materials. They will also think more about what a bridge looks like and will include side rails and ramps. 

TIP: Think about how you will dispense tape. For my older students, I always tear off a length of masking tape and stick it to the edge of their worktables. They cut or tear off what they need. This might not work with first and second-graders. In my experience, cutting tape was a real problem. Their little hands just don’t do well with scissors and I found that a lot of tape ended up tied in knots. So, I started cutting it for them. I just snipped off about a 2-inch piece and placed 10-12 pieces at each work table. I replenished it when they needed more. 

The Challenge: Using straws, craft sticks, and tape build a bridge to connect two chairs (or tables). I also added little cars to this challenge. This is a little more difficult than the first-grade challenge because of the span the bridge must cross. I let each team decide how far apart to make the chairs and the distance was only a few inches. They were very concerned about the car falling off the bridge and added side rails.

Third Grade – Index Card Bridges

Third graders are ready to be challenged with unusual materials. I use the Index Card Bridge with them. Each team has a stack of cards (any size) and tape is optional. We also use pennies for weight. TIP: Think about how you will talk to students about the unusual designs they will try. You can see a little of what I mean in the photo below. The span of the bridge is sagging from the weight of two pennies. Students will try folding cards into zigzags and piling them on top of one another to be the bridge. This rarely works. So, when you see students doing this, what do you say? My answer: nothing. This is one of their first opportunities to learn from failure (in STEM). They will try many things with those cards and then finally discover what will work!

The Challenge: Using only index cards build a bridge that will support weight. This resource has an introductory activity that will help students understand that folding the cards is one way to make this work. 

Fourth Grade – Marshmallow Bridges

My fourth graders are challenged with this bridge event! By the time they tackle this one they will have built several types of bridges. This one has an unusual material.

TIP: Think about how you will create the bridge span. I use the term ‘span’ to mean the empty distance the bridge crosses over. I have tried pushing two lab tables close together and the bridge crosses from one table to another. I have also used two tissue boxes sitting close together. In the photo below you can see that we used a plastic shoebox. 

The Challenge: Using mini-marshmallows, toothpicks (and maybe tape) build a bridge that will support weight. The bridge can have supporting legs under it – if you are using a span that is close to the floor or table. We also complete this challenge with the requirement of having a blueprint that must be followed as the students build the bridge.

TIP: Leave the marshmallows out overnight to make them less flimsy/soft. They will work better.

Fifth Grade – Bridges with Straws and Paper Clips

I love my fifth graders! I can change the rules to make their challenges really challenging and they just dive right in and build! It’s fun to watch! TIP: Think about what you will use for weights on the bridge. I have always used pennies. Before the students begin building I give each team the bowl that pennies will be counted into. They need to have a place on the bridge (platform, boat, or tower) for the bowl to sit as pennies are counted into it. You can see in the photo below that this bridge is almost too narrow! Other ideas for weights: metal washers, colored tiles, paper clips, marbles)

The Challenge: Using straws, string, some tape, and paperclips build a bridge that will support weight. We have used many ways to create the span for this bridge, too. Also, the use of the string is part of this challenge. It becomes a factor as the bridges are built. The students use it to support the roadway of the bridge. These bridges can hold a lot of pennies.

5th-6th Graders Suspension Bridges

This project is one only my upper-grade students complete. We use hot glue guns (low-temperature) and this project takes longer. It is more difficult to sustain excitement with a project for younger students. They ten to like something that is finished in one class session.

TIPS: The materials for this bridge are easy to gather. We use cardboard strips that I cut from packing boxes. Ask your cafeteria staff to save boxes for you! You will need several low-temp glue guns and you need to set up glue stations. I used our floor space for the glue stations and covered the floor with heavy brown paper to help catch glue drips.

The Challenge is to build a model of a suspension bridge. The glue is used to make the supports on each end of the bridge. Stuednet have many different ways of using the string as the suspension part of the bridge.

THese bridges are stable enough to be displayed for a while and students can take them home. I allow each team to decide which students gets to keep the bridge!

Which bridge will you try? These are all great projects and I hope you have found one that will suit your grade level!

I have these listed by grade level but you can certainly try any of the ideas/resources at a different grade! The 3rd, 4th, and 5th-grade challenges are available in my TpT store. Just click on the images.

Bridges Not Mentioned in this Post!

I have so many more bridge resources:

Simple Straw Bridge

Bridge Towers


Gliding Bridge

Task Card Bridge

Essential STEM items you will need!

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