The task was tricky: engineer a beam bridge out of Kapla blocks, precisely cut wood planks that do not interlock, but use gravity to remain in place. The goal, said Chocachatti science resource teacher Ruth Markham, was to make the bridge as long as possible in the allotted time and space.
Students began with online research and then tackled the physical challenge, with balancing acts going on around the room. Bridges grew, bridges fell; bridges grew, bridges fell.
This was part of the School Advisory Council's school improvement plan to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) activities.
"I was asked to do this as a demonstration lesson," Markham said.
"It's a whole different way of teaching. They have to think. They have to problem-solve. They have to come up with a design, and at the end they'll have to figure the area of the road span."
Third- through fifth-graders were building bridges, while the younger students, kindergarteners and first-graders, were asked to build Three Little Pigs' strong houses. Using sugar cubes, Popsicle sticks, straws, pipe cleaners, rocks and pencils, the house had to withstand the Big, Bad Wolf (a hair dryer).
Since this was a demonstration lesson, there were grade-level teachers visiting from other classrooms.
"Ruth does amazing lessons," said fifth-grade teacher Marianne Poholek. "The kids are going to be using this kind of activity for future projects."
Said fifth-grade teacher Sheila McNamara: "It will go along with the standards that I have to teach in science in the classroom."
She added that Markham can provide the blocks and supplements she and other teachers will need.
"This should plant questions in their minds," she said of the students.
Markham had been to a Florida Association of Science Teachers conference and gained some insight into how to prepare students for life after school. Teamwork is important.
"They have to learn to work together," she said.
She was told that when some engineers are interviewed for jobs and asked to solve problems in teams, they walk out.
"That's how they're hiring them," she said.
As for her students, she added, "It's really great to watch them cooperate and get things done."
The students were engrossed in their bridges and seemed to appreciate the value of what they were doing.
"This lesson was really creative and fun and had us working as a team," said fifth-grader Kayla Dawson, 10. "We had a lot of trouble, but had a lot of fun."
Her teammate, fifth-grader Holly Carroll, 10, said, "It gave us an experience to find out what it's like to be an engineer, and we found out what it's kind of like to build a bridge."