Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Learning Challenges

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Scenario 3: Bridge Building


Scenario 3: Building Bridges

Teacher:    Don Johnson

School:      Columbus Middle School in Detroit, Michigan

Grade:        eighth grade technology

Video:         Episode 11, Lessons For Life. Segment begins approximately 14 minutes 45 seconds into the program.

Primary Learning Objectives

Students who successfully complete the activities should be able to:

  • explore the relationships of different materials and designs on the strength and cost of structures
  • work in a team environment to solve problems
  • apply their prior knowledge from different fields of study to a new problem or situation, and to build new knowledge from that
  • describe key features of a company and the roles different professionals play in it
  • describe how organizations use money or other resources to negotiate trades that may benefit both

Learning Activity

Student groups run "companies" that have a budget and other considerations as they plan and build toothpick bridges. Conditions change during construction and students must adapt and often barter to complete their projects.

Lesson plans adapted from Building Toothpick Bridges by Jeanne Pollard (Dale Seymour, 1985)

Learning Theories to Consider

  • Learning and Transfer
  • Structure of the Disciplines
  • Motivation
  • Creating Classrooms and Schools That Support Learning


In this scenario Don Johnson sets up his eighth grade students to become engineers in a bridge-building project. Students are assigned to five-member "companies" and are charged with building a bridge with toothpicks. There are multiple tasks involved including applying mathematics, the principles of design, and the principals of physics. The students are given a budget for construction, and they are required to consider factors such as the cost of land as well as the cost of materials. Each company is in a friendly competition with the other companies as they consider carefully how to allocate their resources to complete their bridge.

Halfway through the project, the cost of materials is increased "due to inflation brought on by national events." Companies are required to look at their resources to determine if they can afford to assist failing companies without endangering the completion of their own bridge. Students become entrepreneurs by taking advantage of opportunities to sell materials to struggling companies at a lower cost than originally announced by their teacher.

Johnson demonstrates Learning and Transfer by providing his students with a knowledge-rich environment to transfer what they know fundamentally about the principals of physics to an actual event, "building a bridge." Over a period of time, the students provide each other with feedback and self-monitoring as they construct their bridge. Johnson's class is an elective class in technology that receives in-kind support from a professional engineering society. Creating bridges of another sort to the community is an example of Creating a Classroom That Supports Learning.

When Johnson begins the assignment with helping students to remember the principals of physics and the principles of design, he is using the Structure of the Disciplines learning theory. He states that he wants students to understand that "science is not unconnected." These principles become the core knowledge students will retrieve as they construct new learning to complete their bridge. Johnson models Motivation as he encourages students to take risks without contemplating failure. He provides them with concrete positive feedback that identifies their strengths while helping them to reassess what is working and what is not working in their construction. An important part of this learning is helping students to feel self-confident in approaching new situations armed only with their ability to know how to learn.

Sequenced Writing Assignments

  1. Make a list of up to five key ideas from each of the four learning theories presented: learning and transfer, the structure of the disciplines, motivation, and creating classrooms that support learning. Next, try to identify a way the teacher applied each of those key ideas as he planned and executed his learning activities. For example, under "structure of the disciplines," you might list "student work is reviewed under the general principles followed in the field of study -- the final product of building the bridge was evaluated by its strength and how well it met the budget, the same tests used by engineers."

You may find it useful to put your list in the form of a table. We have provided templates in either Word or PDF format if you choose to do this.

You may find that some key ideas from the learning theories are not represented in the scenario. For now, leave a blank space after them. You will also find that you are repeating some of the things the teacher did because they are applications of key ideas from more than one learning theory.

  1. Review your list of key ideas and fill in the blanks from Assignment A by suggesting things the teacher could do to apply the key ideas you listed but did NOT see represented already. Suggest other practical things the teacher could do to incorporate key learning theory ideas into his classroom activities.
  1. Reflect on the completed table and record your reflections about how the theories intersect or interact. How might your own teaching practices take advantage of what you see happening in this scenario?

  2. As an alternative to these tasks, follow the directions of your group leader or the teacher of your class to write about this scenario and how one or more learning theories might apply to it. Or decide as a group how you might use it as a case for further study and discussion.

Samples and tools to help you with the scenario assignments

  • Sample rubrics in html or PDF format to assess your writings
  • Writing sample for Scenario Four, Assignments A and B, (in PDF fromat) to use as a model
  • Templates in Word or PDF format for the assignments

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