Holding an afterschool program at Winooski Elementary school exceeded my expectations. With the combination of an awesome group of students and wonderful mentors, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to spend my Tuesday afternoons with. My name is Alyson Wall and I was the lead facilitator for this program, and also acted as a mentor for the thirteen third, fourth, and fifth graders as we learned about bridge construction by using plain white paper.
Each week, I presented the students with a challenge related to the construction of paper bridges. We began by creating columns, beams, and bridge decks ranging in thickness, diameter and height, exploring what shapes and sizes could hold the most weight. We also experimented with weight distribution and the importance behind the placement of our materials. After completing a challenge, we came together as a group to review everyone’s design and to test the amount of weight each bridge could hold, giving students an opportunity to learn from other’s designs.
In week four’s challenge, students focused specifically on columns. We experimented with numerous shapes, heights and widths, by rolling pieces of paper into various-sized tubes. This challenge was particularly exciting because the columns were able to hold a surprising amount of weight (one group even had a couple of full gallon milk jugs supported by their column structures). As we went through each group’s design other students would clap and cheer as a group tested the strength of their bridge. Members of the teams were so supportive of each other, which created a really wonderful environment.
In addition to making our own bridges, a portion of each session was spent looking at bridges found throughout the world. We looked at natural bridges like the one found here and man-made bridges. One of the weekly bridges that we viewed was a conceptual bridge that would theoretically span across the river Seine in Paris. Pedestrians would bounce their way across three trampolines to get from one side to another. It was great to hear student’s creative ideas sparked by this nontraditional bridge combined with the bridge building knowledge they had gained.
Mentors played a big role in the success of our afterschool program. We each brought our own strengths to the table. Two of our mentors, Kathy and Manny, are employees of Winooski Elementary and were great familiar faces for kids to work with. Mentor Jeff Rogers, who is an engineer at the UTC Aerospace facility, brought his engineering expertise each week. As the weeks went by, students shared more about their life and became more interested in the lives of the mentors. It was really exciting to see these relationships grow.
Students made great progress throughout the seven-week program and became more aware of engineering concepts for bridge construction. I could even see some of them building their own bridge one day. Maybe something like this:
For some fun paper bridge activities to do with youth, try starting with this one from PBS Online’s Educators’ Guide:
Have fun and good luck!