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Livingston middle school kids create sturdy mini-structures, learn bridge-building

LIVINGSTON -- How can teachers weave reading, writing, science and mathematics together in a fun way?

Build a bridge.

Thirty Livingston Middle School students are winding up a long-term project building miniature bridges from toothpicks and coffee-stirring sticks. The bridges' strength is then tested with bricks and lead diving weights.

A bridge built by eighth-graders Rosio Amezcua and Liliana Hernandez held up to 84 pounds before collapsing and won the "Battle of the Bridges" competition. Like they did while building the bridge, the girls will return the next few Saturdays to rebuild the span and make it even stronger.

Kera Good, a sixth- through eighth-grade language arts teacher, said the objective was to integrate reading with science and mathematics in a project that would captivate students' attention.

Sue Campbell, eighth-grade science teacher and project supervisor, said the focus was on the whole aspect of planning and investigating bridge-building. Students began with a graph paper template they designed themselves and then learned about tension and compression forces in a project that made learning fun.

Campbell said the non-traditional extra-curricular project undertaken on successive Saturdays and after-school hours also boosted students' English skills.

Math and science majors from UC Merced's School of Natural Sciences came to Livingston each week to help their younger counterparts with the bridge building. Campbell was very pleased with the interaction between the middle school pupils and the college students.

"They (UC Merced students) enjoyed it as much as the kids did. They thought it was very interesting to see kids apply what they had read," Good said.

Amezcua and Hernandez enjoyed the experience and hope their rebuilt bridge will be able to hold 100 pounds. They named their bridge "Santa Barbara" just because they liked the name.

"It's pretty cool getting to build something and then watch it break," Amezcua said. The 13-year-old is not sure about a career goal but is interested in engineering and architecture. She finds the design aspect of bridges fascinating.

Hernandez, who wants to be a pediatrician, said the hardest part of the bridge-building was putting the sub-assemblies together. The bridge, 9 inches tall, has a 40-inch span and is 54 inches long, including the end pillars and support columns.

If she was doing it over, Hernandez said, she would make the bridge's roadbed stronger and not put the load in the center.

None of the bridges could be supported in the middle and the girls learned the midsection was not the place to put the weights. The bridges used at least 400 stirring sticks and 8 ounces of wood glue. Students were allowed to use hair dryers to accelerate the glue-drying process.

Co-teacher Gary Keever said students had to use math skills to figure out the cost of building their bridges. While the coffee sticks, toothpicks and wood glue may have only cost about $10 per bridge, students figured the real bridges represented by the models would have cost a million dollars.

"You don't learn anything unless you make mistakes," Keever said. "Each group of four students picked their own design. It was a hands-on application of what they had read. As they built the bridges, they had something tangible; some were more successful than others."

One bridge only held 6 pounds of weight before collapsing.

Keever said students had a good time on the Saturday morning bridge-building sessions. Students had to estimate how much material they would need for their bridges and then order the pieces.

Good said the teachers tried to simulate real-world applications in the bridge-building process. Campbell said the students had so much fun, they want another challenge next fall.

Today, another "Battle of the Bridges" competition is scheduled from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the school for students in Livingston and surrounding schools. Teams will include four students and a parent-family member as an adviser.

For more information, contact Campbell, Good or Keever at (209) 394-5450.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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