A very long time ago, when I was in high school, one of the highlights of the year was the annual bridge building contest. Of course, I was in a technical high school, and we were learning about forces and construction at the time, but building a popsicle stick bridge and then destroying it is still just as much fun, for kids of any age.

Here’s how you can host your own bridge building contest this year, and teach kids about all kinds of concepts in your engineering programs for students:

What You Need

Part of the fun of the bridge building contest is that it relies on stuff most people have lying around the house. The list of items you need is fairly short, and very inexpensive:

  • Wooden popsicle sticks
  • Drinking straws
  • Glue
  • String

You can add to this basic list if you like, including card or other household items, but the point is to keep it simple.

The Rules of the Build

Once you’ve collected your bridge building materials for the project, the next step is to divide into teams of two to four kids, and set the rules.

  • Divide the building materials you have, giving every team a limited number of each item, and ensuring that they all have the same quantities.
  • Set a time limit for the build, remembering that the glue will need time to dry!
  • It’s a good idea to set a minimum span for the bridges, as well as height restrictions, just to make sure you’re comparing apples with apples.
  • Allow enough time for kids to brainstorm their design, and help them out with suggestions and ideas.
  • Announce the prizes! Kids will find this contest even more fun if they’re playing for bragging rights and a cool prize!

It might be a good idea to have all the kids designing and building in one place, and leaving their bridges behind to dry overnight. Kids can’t resist tweaking their design, and if they do this while the glue is drying, they might weaken the structure.

Deciding the Winner

On the appointed day, all of your little bridge builders should come together to test out their creations, and find out who won. This is where the destruction comes in!

In order to test the bridges, you’re going to place weights on them, until they cannot take any more pressure, and they collapse. The winners are the team whose bridge can hold the most weight.

You don’t have to wait until the next STEM summer camp, either! Turn the bridge testing into a party with snacks and drinks, and be sure to videotape each bridge’s performance, so all of the kids can share their experience with parents and friends, and make sure that there are enough prizes for everyone, so no one feels left out.

All that’s left to do is discuss ideas like mass and loading, and bending moments, and to hand out the junior engineer certificates to all the kids who took part! If you do this contest right, you’re sure to turn it into an annual favorite, and inspire everyone to love your engineering programs for students. That’s a win-win result right there.