Engineering Science
Time Multi-session
Age 10 & up
Group Size 4 or more
Tags Building, Counting, Data,   more...
Design Math Measurement Measurements Paper Problem Solving Shapes Structures Teamwork Testing Washers

Can you create a strong bridge out of these seemingly weak materials?

Design engineering is a great way to teach kids problem solving, teamwork, materials and tool use and the design process in general. In this activity, your students will also learn about structures and strong shapes used in structural design.


Gather all materials, separating equal amounts of the washers or pennies for each team.


Suggested Materials

  • Recycled paper
  • Masking tape (3 feet per team)
  • Coffee cans or quart-sized take-out containers (1 per team)
  • Large 5/8” – 1” washers, pennies; or some other material to be used as weight (see Suggestions in the “Make it Better” step)
  • Books or boxes (2 per team, each the same size)
  • Scissors

Make it Matter

Opening Discussion

Set the context by asking kids about bridges they’ve seen before. What are bridges used for? What kinds of things do they help us get across? What kinds of things cross bridges (cars, bicycles, people, etc.)? What do they think makes bridges strong? If possible, show them some pictures of bridges, or even better, take them on a walk to a bridge that is nearby. You could also ask a couple of volunteers to draw on chart paper a bridge they’ve seen before.

The Challenge

Tell your students that you’d like them to be bridge engineers and create a bridge using just 5 sheets of recycled paper and a small amount of masking tape. Their bridge will need to cross over 8.5 inches of “water” (a gap of 8.5 inches between 2 books or boxes), it cannot touch the “water”, and it cannot be attached to the “river banks” (the books or boxes). The 8.5 inches will be easiest to measure if you place a standard-sized piece of paper in between the 2 books or boxes, as these pieces of paper measure 8.5 inches wide. The students can color this paper to look more like water. Testing the strength of the bridge will be done by placing the coffee can or take-out container on the bridge and adding weight until the bridge collapses.


Make it Happen

Doing the Activity

  1. Divide your children into teams of 2-3. Describe the challenge and the rules of this activity.
  2. Have each team select a “buyer”, who is the person in charge of picking up the materials and bringing them back to the team, and have the buyers collect the paper, coffee can, washers or pennies, tape and books or boxes.
  3. Have them start building! Pay attention to the shapes that the teams are using to construct their bridges. Do you notice any teams using triangles (accordion folds)? Or circles (tubes or cylinders)? Make sure to allow children to build with minimal suggestion from you—your role is to ask questions, not give answers!

Make it Click

Let’s Talk About It

Once each team has created and tested at least one bridge, bring them together to discuss their findings. Have each team share what they’ve tried so far and what their results have been. This discussion should last no more than 10 minutes.


Make it Better

Build On What They Talked About

Send your students back to their bridges and have them create a new design or refine their old one based on what they learned from the discussion with the other teams.


A few days after trying the bridges activity, introduce a new challenge:

  1. Review what your students did last time, focusing especially on the shapes they used to build strong bridges. Challenge them to try again to build an even stronger bridge.
  2. If some teams build their bridges using triangles (the accordion shape) and some with circles (tubes), you might try having the whole group work just with one of those shapes and see how they can build the strongest bridge possible. Then try the other shape. With both kinds of bridge you will find that the smaller the circles (tighter tubes) or the smaller the triangles (as many accordion folds as possible), the stronger the bridge will be. After experimenting with these shapes have each team make a final bridge, with the goal of making it as strong as possible. As a culminating activity, you can have each team bring their bridge to the front of the room and test how much weight it will hold. Record the results and compare the strongest bridges to the others—did the strongest bridges have anything in common?


  • Finding something to use as weight for testing the bridges is important. Washers are great, but can get expensive. Pennies are not as heavy, so you need a lot of them. If you don’t have or can’t get either, try 1/2 liter – 2 liter water/soda bottles filled with different amounts of water. Weigh them if you can in order to give kids an idea of how much weight each bottle has. Nails can also work as weight but be careful…they are sharp!
  • Kids tend to go tape crazy, so you might want to provide a tape limit so that their design is more about the shapes they choose and less about how much tape they used to provide stability. You can either cut pieces for each team ahead of time, or you can go from team to team measuring out their tape. 3 feet per team should be sufficient.
  • There are lots of other activities that challenge children to use paper to construct things. Some examples are:
    1. Building paper columns that can support as much weight as possible (for this activity you might need to use ½-liter, 1-liter and 1-gallon jugs filled with water as testing weight);
    2. Building paper bridges or towers with other kinds of paper, such as a single sheet of newspaper, construction paper, tissue paper, oak tag, etc. Children can be challenged to try out these different materials and determine which is strongest, which is weakest and which of the materials surprised them in how they performed.
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