Paper Bridges

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Children have been using wooden boards, tree limbs, cardboard boxes, books, rocks, blocks, and even beach sand to build bridges and other structures since before recorded history. And yet few school-aged children spend regular time in a guided environment which allows them to continue their explorations and discover first hand how and why bridges stand up and hold the load they are designed to carry (or not).

This paper bridges engineering project offers them just such a guided environment in which they can have fun while at the same time embarking on serious explorations about how structures function. The materials they have available in this project are extremely limited -- just plain paper and a very small amount of tape -- but they quickly discover that possibilities for invention are endless and that paper can be made to carry extraordinary loads if it is conformed in the best possible way. And as they continue to take on more and more difficult bridging challenges and learn more about the capabilities of their materials, students gradually uncover a number of simple principles that apply to bridge building with almost ANY materials.

In this paper bridges project, as in all others in the Design It! series, the children act principally as engineers, meaning they have to learn to be problem solvers. They are given a working design and some appropriate materials and are asked to engineer a successful and, perhaps, improved bridge. As the children work through the challenges in this project, we hope that they will also learn about experimenting, testing, making observations, asking questions, and explaining what they have done and why they did it--the essential elements of critical thinking and the inquiry approach to engineering and science.