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Toothpick bridges – ‘in-your-face for real’

  • Donna Hunt's students show off
their prized toothpick bridge.
    Donna Hunt's students show off their prized toothpick bridge.

Winning Suggestion

By Donna Hunt, Teacher
STEM Academy at Texas Middle School; Texarkana, Texas

Editor’s Note: Seventh-grade science teacher Donna Hunt of Texarkana, Texas, won a Balsa Wood MegaPack valued at $60 for her photo submission of her students and their toothpick bridge creations to the Pitsco Facebook page. Similar challenges and contests will be coming soon at www.facebook.com/pitscoeducation.

I have been teaching for 29 years, and I’ve come to believe that the real-world problems for which students construct a solution, create an environment where learning content is relevant, and authentic learning takes place.

To quote one of my students, “This project made engineering for earthquakes and disasters so in-your-face for real, Mrs. Hunt, I loved it!” I use the toothpick bridge engineering project as part of the catastrophic events unit. Some of the questions that guide the unit are:

  • Are building codes for architects the same in Texas as California?
  • Why are building codes even necessary?
  • Is giving a company with the lowest bid on a job always the right thing to do?

The students form a company, sign contracts, and are challenged to build a bridge within the budget. It must be at least a 14-inch span, completed within six class periods, and capable of supporting three full soda cans. I take six different grades on this project, and the students vote on several categories for winners. Anytime students can ask their own questions, form their own hypotheses, work with materials, and test their own ideas, the concepts that I as a teacher am trying to teach, connect with their world, and retention actually happens.

Our seventh-grade STEM program has an engineering component each six weeks, and the students really enjoy participating – sometimes competing for prizes with their engineering projects.