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“Building Bridges Through STEAM”

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 accessible.

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 other.

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 around you.

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.

Source: St. John's University STEP Program


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