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Building Teamwork and Bridges: A STEM Icebreaker

By Alycia Zimmerman on September 19, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Nothing feels quite so right in my classroom as the productive buzz (make that roar!) when my students are passionately tackling an engineering challenge. This sort of hands-on, mind-on learning promotes critical thinking, real world problem solving, and addresses a host of STEM content. All too often, however, I find that I save this type of learning until the latter part of the school year when I'm confident in our solid classroom community and I've covered the other standards.

Recently, I decided to turn that thinking around and begin introducing engineering design challenges during the first weeks of school. Not only am I now working some of these projects into my autumn content units, but I'm also using other design challenges like this bridge building challenge to introduce my students to the design thinking process and to build my classroom community. Think of this as an über icebreaker! 

Learn how to hold a "Gumdrop Bridge Challenge" in your own classroom (mobile users, please go to: http://bcove.me/veo2w2ys ) and check out the accompanying printable (and whiteboard-ready) resources below.

Bridge Building Design Challenge Resources

Download the "Bridge Building Challenge" guide >

Download the "A-B-D-C-E of Engineering Design Process" presentation >

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Comments (8)

What an awesome activity! My school has just started requiring collaborative activities once per month where students participate in an activity like this, and then write an extended constructed response about their experience. I think we just found our October activity! Thanks for the ideas!

Wow. This is great Alycia. I am excited to do this activity with my students. I actually did gumdrops and toothpicks with a kindergarten class one year for them to explore 3D shapes. It was amazing how much they created and how they were able to understand the concept of 3D shapes this way. We also expanded this lesson with clay models.
Thanks again!
You're an inspiration to us all.

If you looked up the comparative strength of the various gumdrop angles I bet the kids would figure out how to make the strongest joints fit together.

This is the anonymous commenter from earlier.
I absolutely love the directive to just start! Thanks a million for your reply and for your classroom changing/ world changing blog!

I would love to do this type of thing. How does it fit in with all the //other// standards we have to teach?

Jamie, I totally hear you - with our new CCSS requirements, it definitely feels overwhelming at times! (Okay, most of the time.) Usually I design challenges that fit the content I have to cover per our standards. This bridge building activity can fit into covering geometry standards (2d/3d shapes, polyhedrons, angles, etc.) To see how to turn this into a more math-y activity, check out the printable gumdrop math activity in this older blog post: www.scholastic.com/teachers/classroom-solutions/2012/05/getting-shapes-–-geometry-unit-photos-part-1. In science, it can work with a forces and motion unit. Most importantly, I think it fits with the push towards autonomous student conversations and critical thinking. This can work with the "Speaking and Listening" standards in the CCSS, especially if you add in an informational text about bridges that the kids can refer to. I use other STEM challenges that more closely fit our third grade science and social studies standards for my state - building inventions using simple machines (our simple machine unit,) developing a better play-doh (our matter unit,) etc. Good luck!

I love all of your ideas. If you came into my third grade classroom at any given time you would recognize something from your blog being put into practice. My kids love the School House Rock Preamble sing along, and its amazing to see ELLs who just came to America last year singing about domestic tranquility. I love all of your management tips and amazing lesson ideas! You put so much thought into everthing you post and do in your classroom! I love this engineering idea, but I am definetly not a math/ science/ builder type. It looks really overwhelming, especially since I dont teach TAG.Where do I learn about this stuff myself first? Any ideas for how to get started?

Wow, this is the nicest comment ever! Thank you for the lovely feedback - it's great to know my sharing is helpful! Great question - and you might not like this answer, but honestly, just START. I know you're probably going to be skeptical, but I've been doing this bridge-building thing for years, long before I was teaching a TAG class. It worked with my general education students when I was teaching in the Bronx, just as it works with my current students. And it's a lot easier than it sounds. YOU do not need to know how to build a bridge to make this work. I promise you, if you just put a bowl of gumdrops and a box of toothpicks out in your classroom, you will be totally amazed at what your kids build. You don't need to have ANY "rules" or directives - they will naturally figure out how to make all sorts of awesome "stuff." Framing it as a challenge and teaching them about the engineering process is just icing on the cake - it's really the open-ended building that matters. So where's the "teaching," you're probably wondering. Well, you can keep it as simple as circulating while the kids are building, and leading small discussions about the shapes they are making. You might ask which shapes seem the sturdiest, and see if they have theories as to why. With slightly older kids, you might discuss and classify angles. With third graders, perhaps make the focus more about identifying vertices, edges, and naming the shapes they build. Or you can simply keep the focus on the teamwork aspect - asking the kids how they made collaborative decisions, etc. This would also work as a center activity - you can have a gumdrop-toothpick center for early-finishers, or as a center during math rotations. The Boston Museum of Science "Engineering is Elementary" website has 20 really well planned design-challenge units that fit with a wide range of science content. (www.eie.org/the-20-units) For a bank of similarly themed lessons, you can also check out www.tryengineering.org/lesson.php. But this is really one of those times when you shouldn't over-think things (unlike most of the time when we teach, when planning pays off!) Kids are naturally inquisitive and into creating/building. If you provide the materials and a simple context, they will do the rest, I swear it. If you give it a try, please let me know how it goes. If nothing else, your kiddos are going to have a blast!

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