Teaching Methodical Engineering Design through Virtual and Hands On Bridge Building

Students Build a Prototype Bridge
Students with Their Prototype Bridge

At the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School, the students use a NASA Engineering Design Process (EDP) to tackle design challenges. Following a process is not natural for middle school students. Many want to rush in and start building. Others prefer to talk about design ideas as long as they can, debating various points. My goal is to teach them to see the benefits of each step of the EDP, and to understand that engineers are expected to produce something tangible within a reasonable amount of time. Each step of the EDP is important, but it’s also important not to get bogged down. What we learn time and again is that the making of a physical prototype is critical in seeing if our design is successful or not. Usually, the first prototype fails to meet expectations, so the continuous process of testing the prototype, refining the design, then retesting is vital to a successful final design. Therefore, with each design challenge, I am trying to shepherd the students through the research, brainstorming, and design selection stages so that they consider available options without wasting time, and then I push them to build their prototypes so they can see if the design works or not. About half the students like building things and do so quickly. The other half are hesitant and need coaching.

Our latest design challenge is a hybrid of two different science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) competitions, and it is working out well as a way to get students to design a bridge by methodically following the EDP. I used the Engineering Encounters Bridge Design Contest (formerly the West Point Bridge Building Contest) to help students follow the EDP up through design selection, and the Science Olympiad Bridge Building challenge to guide them to build, test, and refine a physical prototype. First the students learned about bridges and bridge design in a brief lesson. Then they entered the Engineering Encounters contest to learn about bridge building firsthand by making truss bridges and testing them using the contest’s online simulator. This contest is a superb STEM challenge by itself, as it encourages students to keep refining their designs and allows them to keep resubmitting improved designs to be ranked against other competitors’. The competitive aspect motivates students to keep trying to improve. The Engineering Encounters contest also gives the students a way to follow the first steps of the EDP to select a viable design before they build a physical prototype. The Science Olympiad bridge challenge requires a physical prototype, so I asked the students to use their Engineering Encounters bridge design as the blueprint for the prototype. To simplify the challenge, I also restricted the students to use only popsicle sticks and glue to build their bridges. We are at the point where students are finishing the building stage, so testing will begin next week. Overall, I am happy with the project and recommend this approach to other STEM teachers. Here are the students in the midst of researching and brainstorming their bridge designs:


Author: Bryan Holmes, Physics & Math Teacher, STEM Competition Mentor

Starting at Thomaston High School in Thomaston, Connecticut, in fall of 2018.

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