Middle School Kids Learning STEM for Engineering Open House

“A triangle is stronger than a square.” 

Just this one piece of insight is enough to make a middle school bridge building project worthwhile. Kids from a Champaign-Urbana homeschool co-op have learned that and much more as part of their project they presented at Engineering Open House (EOH) over the weekend.  

Assisted by MRL’s Tim Spila, Senior Research Scientist in Materials Characterization and David Nicol, Director of the Information Trust Institute and a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) working with the Coordinated Science Lab (CSL), the kids have been hard at work on building, breaking, testing, and evaluating bridges. 

“We chose a truss bridge, because it is a simple, strong bridge,” a student wrote on the project’s poster. “We also learned about compression and tension. Compression is when an object is pushed together and a tension bridge is when the object is being pulled apart.” 

Middle school students, assisted by MRL Research Scientist Tim Spila.
Middle school students, assisted by MRL Research Scientist Tim Spila.

This project was also assisted by the Engineers Volunteering in STEM Education group (ENVISION), including Malia Kawamura and Gabriela Couvertier Santos, Mechanical Science and Engineering (MechSE) graduate students. 

The kids also learned which materials are stronger, choosing a mix of basswood and balsa wood depending on where they needed compression and tension. 

The students’ bridge supported 84.4 lbs. before “exploding” into tiny pieces and breaking. They earned third place in the “most weight supported” category in the EOH Middle School Design Contest for bridges. 

“If you are a middle school student, any project where you get to break something is exciting,” Spila said. “I was very happy to have the support of MRL to participate in this project, and in the spirit of materials science, I had the opportunity to discuss the ideas behind the materials choices and how they relate to what they built in this hands-on project.”