Embracing Failure Through Bridge Building

IMG_2971Primary school students in the Creativity Lab are learning what engineering bridges is all about.  From kindergarten to 4th grade, kids are taking on the role of civil engineering.  They’ve looked at models, they’ve compared and discussed designs, and now, they’re using different building materials to span vast distances.  Grade by grade, they have been tasked with design challenges that ask them to consider bridge components such as piers and abutments, and of course, spans.  Grade by grade, they are learning the differences between arch bridges, truss bridges, beam bridges, and suspension bridges.  Grade by grade, they are battling against gravity, struggling through the trials and tribulations of creating a bridge that holds the most weight.

IMG_3326Kindergartners used wooden building blocks to construct piers and simple beam bridges spanning a three-inch wide, paper river.  First graders, in teams of three, were asked to span a six-foot distance between tables using only paper and tape and chairs.  Second graders were asked to resist the urge to eat their building materials before they managed to complete five-inch spans using gumdrops and toothpicks.  Third graders partnered up, and worked with paper and tape to design truss bridges spanning a minimum of fifteen inches; they also tracked how much paper and tape they used, hoping to construct the strongest bridge using the least amount of material.  After the holidays, 4th graders will be joining Lighthouse’s Civil Engineers Corp, when they design, build, and test their very own balsa wood bridges.

IMG_3312Though bridge building is fairly standard fare in engineering design challenges, it makes for a superb hands-on experience in making classrooms.  For starters, there’s the versatility illustrated above: the variety of different materials that can be utilized, and the ways in which challenges can be altered, tweaked either slightly or rather drastically, in order to age-grade for differing grade levels.  Besides that, bridges can be fun to design and to build, and the science behind these marvels of engineering can be conveyed to students cogently and succinctly.

IMG_3355For me, the most important feature of this particular design challenge is found in bridge building’s unique relationship to failure.  You don’t build a bridge without testing a bridge, and regardless of age, all my students tested their bridges until they failed, until the paper or the wood or the gumdrops crumpled and collapsed beneath the weight of too heavy a mass.  Failure is built into the process of making bridges.  A student can’t build a better bridge, can’t recognize faults in their design, without seeing their designs tested.  To see their own work fall apart this way means that children must be able to embrace failure as part of the learning process.

IMG_3357_2Our Creativity Lab engineers are struggling with failure and frustration in the same way that professional engineers struggle with failed prototypes and with projects marred by frustration.  If things continue according to plan, those balsa wood bridges we build in the Creativity Lab will topple and fall, but those failures will be some of the first steps to getting our kids to being tomorrow’s engineers.  Who knows, by then, we might need another new Bay Bridge, so why not have them on the design team?

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About John Howard

JT taught Making in the Creativity Lab's after-school program during the first year of this program (2013-14). He is currently studying creative writing at the Indiana University.