In gym class you run. In music class you sing. So, in an engineering class, why wouldn’t you build something?

At Providence Elementary School in Fairfax, three to four times a year students participate in hands-on engineering projects aimed at getting them to think, design, work as a team and have fun.

Suspension bridge building

“So, do we need to check our plan?” Providence sixth-grader Sam DeBrular asked teammates Mae Malloy, 11, and Muizza Qureshi, 12.

The three students opened their workbooks to look at drawings of a suspension bridge they had collaborated on the day before. They now had 45 minutes to build a bridge out of cardboard, duct tape, string and clothespins.

“The entire class is an engineering team,” said Diana Schmiesing, one of the science teachers.

Schmiesing and fellow teacher Sarah Phillips spent a week working on the most recent projects in the school’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) lab with classes from kindergarten through sixth grade. Their goal was to get the kids thinking like innovators, or people who solve problems with facts and creative thinking.

Teamwork was also a very important part of the class, and the kids were learning to work together and communicate.

Earlier this year, the sixth-graders made a moon lander aimed to withstand a drop of up to eight feet and a robotic arm that had to lift something.

Now they moved on to bridge-building.

“It has to be tight,” Madison George, 12, said to teammate Lupita Urquilla, 12.

The two were discussing how to tape two long pieces of string, which would serve as the bridge’s main suspension cables, from the top of one chair to the top of another chair about five feet away. The chairs served as the big poles that anchor a real bridge. Under the main cables, they placed a long piece of cardboard between the chairs and weighed it down with books on either end.

The students then had to decide how and where to loop six strings around the bridge and the main suspension cables. The string loops would serve as the smaller suspension cables and, along with the main cables, would create tension, or forces working in opposite directions.

Failing leads to succeeding

Miles Lassiter, 11, and Charlotte Schababerle, 11, were on a team across the room.

“Oh, that’s not right. That’s not right at all,” Miles said when he accidentally twisted the string while looping it.

“Oh, you twisted it! That’s really smart! Hey, look! This works!” Charlotte said, figuring that a twisted string would make a stronger bridge.

Trying things and sometimes failing is part of the work. The class is not a competition, so teams are allowed to alter their projects based on what others are doing.

“We need another one in the middle,” Christian Heiche, 11, told his team as they decided where to loop the string.

At the end of the class, the teachers tested a couple of bridges. Phillips placed a toy car on the bridge and. using a hair dryer, blew pretend wind at the car for 10 seconds. Then she and Schmiesing shook the chairs for 10 seconds, simulating an earthquake. Finally, Phillips dropped rolls of masking tape one at a time onto the bridge to see how much force the bridge could withstand.

The car flipped over and eventually fell off the bridge, but that did not mean the project was a failure. The teams observed and wrote down what they saw. Then they evaluated how well they worked individually and as a team.

Phillips and Schmiesing said the kids have talked about how the projects relate to work in other classes and to their lives outside of school.

Many of the kids said they want to pursue science and engineering careers when they grow up. “It’s really fun,” Madison said. Lupita agreed: “We get to work in a team, and we get to experience how things work in life.”

— Moira E. McLaughlin