Fall 2017, Fall 2017, St. John's
University, Jamaica, NY
For this year’s St. John’s STEP program, we decided
on the theme “Building Bridges through STEAM”,
which can be taken to literally building bridges, or figuratively
in bridging the different elements of STEAM together. The
students engaged in multiple bridge-building activities as
well as circuits building activities that required them to
use their engineering, design, physics, and their mathematical
problem-solving skills in order to be successful.
In the beginning of the semester, students were introduced
to the engineering process where they had to use spaghetti
and marshmallows to experiment with different structures to
determine which ones are able to handle the greatest amount
of load. Their experiments help them to further understand
the effects that compression and tension forces have with
respect to the strength of structures. Spaghetti cannot hold
much tension or compression; therefore, it breaks very easily.
Marshmallows handle compression well but do not hold up to
tension. Engineers consider tension and compression forces
when designing a building or structure, and choosing the materials
to build it.
We explored the history of bridges, going back to the idea
of bridges allowing nations to keep power over others, how
important they are for trade, and for even just the simple
purpose of being able to travel over a body of water. Then
we moved on to study the art aspect of the bridges and how
different bridge designs emerged over the years, especially
arches. The students also were educated on the highest and
the tallest bridges around the world. As a fun add-in when
discussing design, we also were able to discuss the “bridges
to nowhere”: bridges that either started to be built
and then funding ran out so they were never finished or bridges
that were built but serve no purpose because they are not
Students were given restrictions on the amount of each item
they could use. Their goal was to make one bridge that was
the tallest, stable structure as well as building another
bridge that was sturdy and stable enough to hold the weight
of a phone. During a different session, the students, again
in small groups, created bridges out of newspaper and tape.
Again they were given constraints on the materials they can
use. Due to these constraints, the students really needed
to think mathematically about how to best utilize their materials.
They needed to plan how they were going to work with the angles
and the lengths of each piece when it was connected to each
Next, we touched on the different types of bridges that
could be built, namely the arch bridge, the beam bridge, the
cable-stayed bridge, truss bridges, suspension bridges, and
cantilever bridges. We discussed the ideal places and uses
for each type of bridge, as well as the forces involved in
keeping the bridge erect and stable. The students were able
to discuss the three bridges that are opening in New York
this year and how they have watched them develop.
During one session, we concentrated on the design aesthetics
of bridges today and how some bridge designers are incorporating
nature, colors, interesting shapes, and even see-through panels
on the walkways. The students then thought about, drew and
wrote a summary of what they “ideal bridge” would
look like and feature as a new innovative idea. Some students
came up with things like secret passageways to avoid traffic
and bridges with see-through walls that could submerge cars
into the water to be able to drive through and see the sea-life
The students created bridges using popsicle sticks and glue.
This time, again with constraints on the number of popsicle
sticks, the students were asked to research the many types
of truss bridges and choose one to create with their group.
They were asked to sketch the design of the bridge using a
scale drawing, think ahead regarding any issues they may have
built the bridge, and also try to predict exactly how many
popsicle sticks they would use out of the 100 given to them.
The students need to evaluate and assess the different problems
that they incurred and come up with realistic solutions to
their problems.Again, this is using their problem-solving
skills, which is the main skill that math classes teach their
students. Students are taught to review information given
to them, evaluate it, and come up with reasonable solutions.
This is a process that the students of STEP needed to utilize
throughout the semester.
In addition to the construction component of bridges, students
to Physics through the lens of circuits. Students looked at
the three basic parts of a circuit, the difference between
closed and opened circuits and compare series and parallel
circuits. We investigate the real-life application of circuits
through the lens of light switches and LEDs. As part the students’
bridge design, students had to consider how the LEDs would
fit as part of their bridges design. Finally, in groups, students
competed by presenting their bridges on “bring a friend
day”. Teachers and friends rated each group and choose
a winner. Having the students present their bridges help practice
public speaking, which is an important skill necessary for
their success in college and for the rest of their life.
To reflect on this wonderful semester students wrote essays
about their learning experience using the STEAM & careers
rubric. The STEAM & careers contain questions that guide
students to truly bridge the connections through STEAM (Our
theme) and more importantly to research careers related to
STEAM. First, students wrote their essays individually and
then in groups, they agreed on one final essay. Out of the
finals essays, two were chosen to be presented at our fall
semester closing ceremony.