Iowa State student outreach event teaches kids bridge-building

Civil engineering sophomore Paige Taylor helps a few Story County elementary school students build a K'Nex bridge on Feb. 8, 2015.
Civil engineering sophomore Paige Taylor helps a few Story County elementary school students build a K’Nex bridge on Feb. 8, 2015.

What do K’Nex, marshmallows, toothpicks, and crawling on tabletops have in common? Why, bridge-building of course.

Several students in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering (CCEE) at Iowa State University led about 25 Story County elementary school students on a bridge-building adventure. One Sunday per month from November 2014 through February 2015, children discovered civil engineering concepts used to build bridges. Three two-hour sessions were held in 130 College of Design building.

“It was cool to see how passionate kids were about engineering,” said Meghan Cronin, an event volunteer and master’s student in civil engineering. “I was very impressed by how much kids that age already knew about bridges.”

Other CCEE volunteers were doctoral student Bin Cai, master’s student Zhao Cheng, master’s student Adam Miller, master’s student Anmol Pakhale, master’s student Andrew Sundal, and civil engineering sophomore Paige Taylor. Wilson Engineering Professor Sri Sritharan coordinated student participation in the activity.

The first session, held Nov. 9, gave children the chance to feel real bridge materials. Students, their parents, and event volunteers constructed two four-foot truss bridges using wooden panels, wooden dowels, and steel rods. Once complete, children crawled through the bridges spanning two tables. Afterwards, volunteers taught students compression force, tension force, abutments, decks and columns. Toothpicks and marshmallows were used to demonstrate concepts of transferring forces, including use of the more-stable triangular setup.

Taylor enjoyed this application of engineering, as she worked at a children’s gym while in high school. “In my early years as an Iowa State student, this was a great way to get more involved with the College of Engineering,” she said.

At the Jan. 11 session, elementary school students divided into groups. Each group produced a team name and logo, much like a new engineering firm would. Children learned about different types of bridges and used what they learned from November to design a bridge concept.

During the last session on Feb. 8, groups built their bridges using K’Nex. They were restricted to build bridges 12 inches long and with three inches of overhead clearance. Someone on the team kept inventory of bridge components, which taught economic decisions. A small toy car riding over the bridge was used as a strength test.

This event was part of the Elementary Engineering program, which Story County 4-H & Youth hosts and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach sponsors. Children also visited the Iowa State University Ag Farm in September 2014. During the spring they will learn about simple machines, with other science activities, through May 2015. The 2014-2015 cohort is the program’s second year.