Fletcher Students “Bridge” Classroom and Real-Life Learning

Two teams of fifth and sixth-grade students from the Fletcher Elementary School have received first and third place awards at Vermont Technical College’s Middle School Bridge Building Competition.

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“We really feel like we accomplished something big,” fifth grader Reed Stygles said. “We took everything we knew from the classroom and put it together with the new things we learned about bridges and we came out on top.”

Now in its third year, the Randolph-based competition required students to construct bridges in advance using only wooden popsicle sticks, white glue, wooden toothpicks and dental floss. Other structural requirements only added to the challenge. Bridges had to be over three feet in length and adhere to 10 other technical specifications.

“There were a lot of rules to remember,” Stygles said. “We kept making adjustments to make sure that we didn’t do anything illegal.”

Students’ experience with the engineering design process began in their classrooms, long before the competition, and those attending the competition participated in nine additional after-school bridge-building sessions sponsored by the school’s parent group, Friends of Fletcher Elementary.

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“We learned about the design process in class and then used that knowledge with this project,” fifth grader Malayna Sweet-Werneke said. “The first step is imagining and designing. We planned out our bridges and decided on the roles each team member would play before we constructed it. Then, we started building.”

Sweet-Werneke said that seeing the other successful bridges at the competition gave her a lot of ideas for improving her own team’s creation.

“The redesign process is important,” she said. “You test things out and gather other information to make your bridge even better. You’re not done after you build it once. You can always make improvements and I have lots of ideas for next year.”

One Fletcher team’s bridge that weighed 3.2 pounds supported an 82-pound weight load. The team had predicted that the bridge would support just 25 pounds.

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“Estimating how much weight the bridges will hold is tough,” fifth grader Jack Tinker said.

“We all worked together easily and felt great about it,” fifth grader Evan Roberts said. “I learned that we can accomplish better things when we work at a team. I think that’s true about bridges and other things.”

While 51 teams of middle school students from around the state participated, Fletcher students placed first for building the lightest bridge and third for creating a bridge with the most structural efficiency.

“Knowing that the culminating celebration for their hard work was to be part of this bigger picture, the competition, was incredibly motivating. It was exciting to watch our students combine their classroom knowledge with what they learned about bridges to create a successful outcome,” STEM Teacher Leader Denette Locke said. “It’s a perfect opportunity for our students to combine science and math and to be leaders.”

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During judging, points were awarded for bridges that held the most weight and had the greatest structural efficiency. Additionally, aesthetics and originality of design, presentation, and each team’s ability to closely predict their bridge’s failure point also received points. The presentation segment of the competition included a panel of judges interviewing students about their work.

“Model bridges promote the study and application of physics and engineering and help students develop hands-on skills,” competition organizers said. “Participating students get to experience what it is to be an engineer, designing structures to a set of specifications and then seeing them perform their function.”

“It’s a great opportunity for students to pay particular attention to precision in their work,” Locke said. “It was also exciting to see so many of our female students so engaged with science, a field that is statistically dominated by males.”

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Campus tours also made an impression on students.

“Someday I am going to college so it was interesting to see the campus and start to think about the things I saw that interested me,” Sweet-Werneke said.

“Participating in the VTC Bridge-Building Competition is a great opportunity for students,” parent volunteer Aimee Tinker said. “Not only do they get to practice their knowledge of bridge structure and how it pertains to weight load, they do so while working as a team, exercising communication skills and idea-sharing.”

Prior to the competition, the students hosted John Diebold, Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor from VTC. Diebold talked with students about his profession as an engineer.


Target 3 Flexible Learning Environments – FWSU maximizes flexible learning environments by redefining the school day, promoting learning experiences that extend beyond the classroom, and fostering creativity, innovation, and personalized learning opportunities for all. 

Indicators of Success – (1) The school calendar and definition of the school day are flexible and responsive to the needs of students. (2) Students engage in answering authentic questions and solving problems in collaborative settings. (3) Flexible learning environments are the context for collaboration and extend beyond the classroom.

Action Steps – (1) Provide students with access to content, resources, and methods for learning beyond the school day and beyond the school walls.(2) Develop opportunities for students to demonstrate transferrable skills in authentic settings. 

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