Civil engineer develops lesson plans around bridges as part of I-70 project

July 05, 2022

Children and instructor work on building bridges with candy and toothpicks.

At a STEM Cubs event in June, students had the opportunity to build bridges out of candy and toothpicks.

How do you construct a road over a river? Why do some bridges have steel arches over the roadway while others don’t? How do bridges work, anyway?

Portrait of Sarah Orton

Sarah Orton

These are some of the questions Mizzou Engineering’s Sarah Orton will answer as she develops curriculum around bridge-building for K-12 schools across the state. Orton, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is working on the lesson plans with the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and Lunda Construction, the design-build contractors currently constructing the I-70 Rocheport Bridge over the Missouri River. As part of their successful proposal for the bridge work, Lunda agreed to implement innovative STEM training and outreach.

The first lesson was presented to elementary students as part of the STEM Cubs day camp at Mizzou on June 16. There, Orton’s students and representatives from MoDOT and Lunda led an activity in which children used toothpicks and gum drops to build miniature bridge structures over which they drove toy cars.

For elementary schools, Orton is creating educational videos about bridges and providing instructions for teachers to lead similar activities. For older students, more complex equations will be added, giving them the ability to come up with their own designs, experiencing the work of a professional engineer first-hand.

“We’re creating 12 lesson themes targeted to the different age groups,” Orton said. “I’m aiming to make it customizable so teachers can adapt it to different materials.”

For schools in Central Missouri, where the I-70 project is more visible, representatives from MoDOT and Lunda will be available to visit classrooms. Professional engineers will also provide insights into career opportunities. And schools can opt to arrange to take students to the bridge for on-site tours.

“We want to introduce kids to STEM and to get them thinking about possible career paths,” Orton said. “We hope they find it interesting and perhaps decide they want to continue their education in civil engineering.”

In addition to bridge building, the curriculum will introduce students to concrete materials, geotechnical foundations, roadway design, hydraulics and other related areas.

Ultimately, Orton hopes it opens students’ eyes to new possibilities.

“When I talk to younger students, I always ask, ‘Can you be a bridge engineer? Yes. You just have to like solving problems,’” she said. “We want kids to know they can be an engineer and design bridges someday, too.”

The first lesson plans are expected to be available to Missouri schools starting this fall with additional activities to be added in the spring. Eventually, Orton hopes to have all activities available online for teachers across the country.

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