TAME Engineering Adventure: Oh, the Suspense!

TAME Engineering Adventure: Oh, the Suspense! A hands-on activity challenging middle school and high school students to build bridges and think like civil engineers!
Above, left: the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, infamous for its collapse under high winds. Above, top right: a suspension bridge activity from Scientific American. Above, bottom right: a Warren truss bridge built with Popsicle sticks and a Howe truss bridge built with straws, from

Welcome to TAME Engineering Adventures! Every month we strive to bring you two engineering activities (one for middle school, one for high school) that will help you challenge your students with hands-on learning. 

Most days, we don't think too much about bridges, but with the recent Texas floods, we're all the more aware of the important work that engineers do to design bridges and other infrastructure that can withstand extraordinary conditions. In this adventure, your students will practice building their own bridges, and maybe even engineer a solution that will carry future Texans to safety.

Middle School Adventure: Engineer Your Own Suspension
Challenge your students to use the force--the forces of a suspension bridge, that is. Using straws, tape, and string, this bridge-building activity from Scientific American compares beam and suspension bridges in a simple, easy way. Your students will come away with a greater understanding of how and why bridges work the way they do. A wonderful hands-on lesson for the basics of bridge-building.

TEKs Tie-Ins: Perfect for 6th graders as they learn about natural disasters or the basics of geometry, acute/obtuse/right angles and triangles; 7th Graders' math concepts like 3D geometrical figures, and science concepts like learning how to predict and describe catastrophic events and how they impact ecosystems (i.e. floods, hurricanes, or tornadoes).

Bonus: Try this additional design that helps students experiment with load-bearing forces. (Some example photographs are available here.) Try using coins, assigning comparative weights like "1 dime = a person" and "2 quarters = a bicycle" and so on. 

TAME Middle School Engineering Adventure

High School Adventure: Play Bridge!

This is a higher-level bridge project that would be perfect to lay the foundation for high schoolers who want to go on to design their own bridges. The activity from is one of the most in-depth projects we've shared, with free, full-size schematics for a Warren truss bridge built with Popsicle sticks and a Howe truss bridge built with straws. 

Tip: Plan this activity when you will have at least 8 hours for the glue to dry, or use faster-drying adhesives to speed up the process. Alternatively, you could build both designs using the straw and tape.

TEKs Tie-Ins: There are several high school level math and science classes in which you could introduce this project to great effect.

Aquatic Science TEKS concepts:
  • interrelationships in aquatic systems and weather (El Niño, La Niña, hurricanes)
  • sources of a watershed
  • fluid dynamics
  • human impact roles and human activities influence aquatic environments
Earth and Space Science TEKS concepts:
  • erosion and deposition changing the Earth's surface
  • changing Earth's subsystems affect on humans (earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes etc)
  • Hydrosphere (groundwater, polar ice caps, glaciers, etc)
  • climate predictions and potential for rising ocean levels
  • surface and groundwater movement
Geometry TEKS concepts:
  • angles, lines, polygons
  • three-dimensional figures
  • parallel lines, perpendicular lines
  • triangular segments
Physics / Integrated Physics and Chemistry TEKS concepts:
  • assess relationship between force, mass, and acceleration
  • forms of potential energy, including gravitational, elastic, and chemical
  • forces on objects, law of inertia, force and acceleration
  • role of wave characteristics and behaviors in medical and industrial applications

 Ask students to consider how their bridges are anchored in place on either side of the gap. Ask for a volunteer to use a hair dryer to simulate strong winds (like the ones that caused the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to flex wildly and come to be known as "the most dramatic failure in bridge engineering history")  or place the bridge outside and have another volunteer use a water hose to simulate the way that floods can tear up bridges.  Ask students which materials and designs hold up the best to which disaster conditions.

Bonus²: Download the ForceEffect app or Chrome software recommended at the end of the project, and have your students use the software to build their own bridges and predict where the bridge may break. 

TAME High School Engineering Adventure

Looking for more? 

These ideas come from our curated idea boards on Pinterest. If you liked these, you'll love our Engineering: Activities for All Ages board!

With nearly 3,300 pins organized into 47 different boards, TAME's Pinterest presence is specially curated to help teachers, parents, and students of all ages get excited about STEM. 

By Lindsey Carmichael and Jessie Temple, June 2, 2015.

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