Kids use math to build bridges in Ky.

Sixth- through eighth-grade students of Devin Franklin in Kentucky put their 50-cm bridges built out of spaghetti and glue to the test late last year, the Courier-Journal reports.

“Doing a project like this, the benefit of it is it takes all the concepts we talk about in math and science class and makes them really tangible and hands-on,” the paper quoted Mr Franklin as saying. “We talk about the abstract, but suddenly students understand on a practical level what it is.”

Research has found that school curricula, especially in science, math, and technology, are often inadequate in preparing students to work with the challenges they’ll face in the real world. For example, a chapter entitled “The Impact of Project-Based Learning and Technology on Student Achievement in Mathematics” in the 2015 book New Media, Knowledge Practices and Multiliteracies, written by Leah J Branch of Bethel University in St Paul, Minn., had this to say:

The purpose of this study was to determine the effects on student achievement in mathematics when project-based learning with the support of technology is used as [the] instructional approach rather than a traditional instructional approach with integrated technology. The research examined the differences in student achievement in mathematics between two charter schools in Chicago. … The results revealed that there were statistically significant differences in student achievement between schools that used project-based learning as an instructional approach and schools that used a traditional instructional approach.

“Preparing students to live in the 21st century requires that educators expose them to a curriculum centered on content that would enable them to critically think, problem solve, and become efficient citizens in a vastly changing world,” she adds in the introduction.

The kind of project-based learning here, where students apply science and engineering principles they learn in class to solve real-world problems, like building a bridge that will support the weight of a bucket filled with rocks, does exactly that. It also requires students to call upon their creativity. “There’s a lot of that infused in these projects,” Mr Franklin said. During the month-long project, students were often their own best critics as they designed and redesigned their bridges, he added.

The final test came one December night at a dinner for family members. Twenty student-led teams of bridge designers and engineers watched anxiously and excitedly as rocks were added to the buckets attached to their spaghetti bridges. In order to assess the cost efficiency of the projects, materials were given fake costs.

“This project has brought together so many different strands of science, engineering, and math, really, in ways that I’ve not seen before with any other project that I’ve done,” Mr Franklin told the Courier-Journal.

He teaches science at the Discovery School, a special program for students who are gifted in math and science within Hebron Middle School in Bullitt County, Ky.

Editor’s note: A May 5 article in the Chicago Tribune describes a house-building project by students at Maine East High School in Park Ridge, Ill., in cooperation with Habitat for Humanity. The project required input from career and technical education classes in construction as well as geometry classes.

“I don’t think it could have come together better than it did,” the paper quoted construction teacher Shawn Farrington as saying. “To see high school students produce this kind of work is very impressive.”

“Students are excited to come to class and learn math,” said Rebecca Stewart, district department chair for career and technical education. “I don’t think they even realize they are putting their knowledge to work. And they see the benefits: they know a family is going to live in something they created.”

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.