STEM students build up learning in bridge competition 

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Question: Who can build four bridges in two hours from just popsicle sticks and glue – each bridge strong enough to hold 20 pounds? 

Answer: 20 competitive fourth- and fifth-grade STEM students from Paul Dunbar Learning Center, with a little help from some partners. 

STEM students build up learning in bridge competition 

Dallas ISD’s STEM department “works very hard with our industry and community partners to provide Dallas ISD students with fun, engaging, hands-on, interactive activities and opportunities that spark and increase their interest in STEM disciplines and career fields,” Crystal Alexander, STEM department manager, said. “Today we are providing an opportunity for students to explore the Engineering Design Process to support the campus’s participation in the district’s annual bridge-building competition.” 

The recent bridge-building challenge came from Tackle Tomorrow Foundation founder and five-time Super Bowl Champion Charles Haley. “I want to challenge each of these students to know that they can accomplish anything they put their minds to,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to help these kids unlock their dreams through education.”

Eight industry-leading transportation engineers from TEXpress worked with the students in the competition providing guidance and insight as the kids used their emerging skillsets to design and construct models of bridges that would ultimately be tested for how much weight they could withstand.

The exercise was good practice for Dallas ISD’s upcoming STEM EXPO, the largest in Texas, where students explore, design and create real-world STEM activities. The expo coming up in January comprises over 180 hands-on exhibits and serves as the culmination event for the district championships. The Mathematics Bridge Building is just one of those competitions along with others in Coding, Digital Tech Fest, Lego, Mathematics Dimension U, Science and Engineering Fair, VEX Robotics and Tech Connect (*new). The expo also showcases the district’s collegiate academies, STEM/STEAM campuses and the career and technical education pathway.

At Dunbar, after an introductory lesson on civil engineering in transportation and bridge construction, the fourth- and fifth-graders went about the bridge-building exercise with their final products being assessed by a group of judges that included engineers, teachers, district and school administration as well as TEXpress team members.  

The student teams paired up with engineers and each team had no more than two hours to design and construct a bridge that measured a minimum of two feet long, made from only two materials: popsicle sticks and glue. The bridge had to be strong enough to hold at least one ream of paper (500 pages, roughly five pounds).

The teams worked diligently their only break coming at the midway point of the competition for a few words from Mr. Haley who founded the Tackle Tomorrow Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization along with longtime Dallas civic leader Bob Bowie to improve early childhood literacy rates and provide family support services. 

“To be involved with the young students at Dunbar is so great,” Haley said. “I know from my own experience that education is the key.”

The five-time Super Bowl champion emphasized to the students and teachers that they should “never give up on their dreams” and stressed “we have to work hard to earn success in life and it all starts with education” from a young age. 

When the work resumed, the four bridges were at various stages of completion.  

TEXpress’ Robert Hinkle called out with 30 minutes left in the competition, it was almost certain that only three teams would have completed the assignment in the time allotted. To everyone’s amazement there stood four very different bridges – one in the middle of each table.

With sticky hands and smiles on their faces, the teams walked around the room to marvel at their work. Then, in grand elementary school style, it was time to celebrate the accomplishments with a pizza party for all before leaving their handiwork to dry over the weekend. 

After a grueling session of adding round after round of weight to determine the winner, Paul Dunbar Learning Center principal, Alpher Garrett-Jones stepped in to declare a tie. Astonishingly, the final two teams were able to hold an impressive 75 pounds of weight.

  As Principal Garrett-Jones noted, “This is not about breaking the bridges, it is about celebrating the accomplishments of these wonderful students.”  

Ultimately, the judging officials went to the rule book to determine that in the event of a tie with weight, the secondary qualifier is cost efficiency, or number of popsicle sticks used in constructing the bridge. This is the same rule that applies to all students in the Dallas ISD STEM Expo. And, when the dust from the broken popsicle sticks settled, the winning team was “Electrocutor.”

Congratulations to all the students, faculty, administration, engineers, volunteers and the Tackle Tomorrow Foundation, who made this exciting STEM exercise possible and those to come. 

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