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Buildable Bridge Models. Learning Engineering through Block Play and Model Construction. Brian Brenner Julia Carroll Brian Gravel.

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Buildable Bridge Models

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Buildable Bridge Models

Learning Engineering through Block Play and Model Construction

Brian Brenner

Julia Carroll

Brian Gravel

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“Young children are inherently active with strong impulses to investigate, to share with others what they have found out, to construct things, and to create. In other words, a child is a natural engineer.”

-Genalo et al. (2000)

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  • Block play or “hands on” learning

  • Engineering and blocks

  • Bridge models

    • Zakim bridge

    • Suspension bridge

    • Tacoma Narrows bridge

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Science through Block Play

  • Scientific method

  • Systems and systematic thought

    • Iteration, patterns

    • Reversibility

  • Interactions

    • Whole-part relationships

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Mathematics through Block Play

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Engineering and Blocks

  • Basic Structures

    • Post and lintel

    • Arches

    • Cantilever

  • Advanced structures

    • Tunnels

    • Bridges

    • Ramps

    • Towers

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Engineering and Blocks

  • Construction/Design Principles

    • Design Constraints

    • Construction staging

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Older Students and Blocks

  • Models

    • Physical resemblance

    • Functionality

    • Tools of theory

  • Complex systems

    • Uses of different materials

    • Terminology

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Bridge Models

  • Simplified examples of large structures

  • Simulate construction staging

  • Encourages thinking about engineering design and practice

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Zakim Bridge Model

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Zakim Bridge Discussion

  • Forces in cables, piers, decking

  • Stiffness of the deck

  • Location/style of cables

  • Advantages/disadvantages

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Suspension Bridge Model

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Suspension Bridge Discussion

  • Forces in the cables, piers, and abutments

  • Compare to cable-stayed

  • Span length

  • Cable calculations

  • Failures

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Tacoma Narrows Model

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Simulates collapse and redesign of Tacoma Narrows bridge

Unstiffened deck comes off with a modest wind

Stiffened deck remains intact

Tacoma Narrows Discussion

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Student Guides



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Buildable Bridge Library

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More Hands-on Learning

  • Use their bodies to show engineering principles

  • Create “human models” of structures

  • Popsicle stick/toothpick structures

  • Bridge library website


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  • Blocks encourage science and math development

  • Block play is usually a child’s first experience with engineering

  • Block models and hands-on activities provide a tangible way for students to learn about their surroundings

  • Block models inspire scientific and engineering thought

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  • Genalo, L.J., Bruning, M.,and Adams, B. (2000). “Creating a K-12 engineering educational outreach center.” Proc., 2000 ASEE Annual Conf., American Society for Engineering Education, Washington, D.C.

  • Kids/Blocks/Learning. Ansel, Patricia G. 2005. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. July 6, 2005.

  • Leeb-Lundberg, K. (1984). “The Block Builder Mathematician.” The Block Book, ed. 3., National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, D.C.

  • Moffit, M.W. (1984). “Children Learn about Science through Block Building.” The Block Book, ed. 3., National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, D.C.

  • Penner, D.E., Giles, N.D., Lehrer, R., Schauble, L. “Building Functional Models: Designing an Elbow.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching., v.34 n.2, pp.125-143

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