Weybridge kids build bridges to the future

WEYBRIDGE — Weybridge Elementary School is taking very seriously its mission of building students a bridge to a better future.
In fact, every student in the small community school spent last week building a total of 10 bridges — not in the same vein as Middlebury’s $16 million Cross Street Bridge that can support multi-ton vehicles, but rather tiny spans made out of popsicle sticks designed to withstand at least 5 pounds of weight.
It’s all part of a new education program spearheaded by Weybridge kindergarten teacher Joy Dobson in collaboration with her colleagues and officials from UTC Aerospace Systems (formerly Goodrich Aerospace) in Vergennes. It’s an offering aimed at getting young students interested in engineering, a field in which there are currently many well-paid jobs waiting to be filled in Vermont.
“I want them to understand engineering, and have that field open up to them,” Dobson said on Thursday, as a team of five young students cooperatively and methodically glued together a popsicle-stick railing to complement the bridge deck they had already fashioned. “It’s also about having groups of children work with each other and learn from each other.”
Dobson explained the engineering program grew from a “math problem of the month” assignment that Weybridge Elementary adopted last year for students at each grade level (K-6).
“Children share their work, and it doesn’t matter what grade level they’re in,” Dobson said. “They do their own private think time, private work, and then they share their solution — or part of their solution — with their partner.”
Dobson got the thought about incorporating engineering into the monthly math assignment after driving past the UTC headquarters on Panton Road in Vergennes one day.
“I want to know what they do,” she thought of the business.
Dobson’s question was soon answered. She learned of an open house at UTC for teachers this past spring and decided to attend. She learned a little about what UTC engineers do, which inspired her to try and get some of those folks into Weybridge Elementary classrooms.
“I caught a bug of enthusiasm,” she recalled.
Dobson asked, and was granted, an opportunity to make her pitch. And Moises Mejia, a UTC systems engineer, agreed to serve as a program mentor.
Mejia assisted Dobson this past summer in refining the bridge engineering program. The offering was designed to teach students how engineering has affected the development of bridges over time, including various innovations in design. Dobson reasoned that the program would allow students to ask questions; define problems; engage in argument from evidence; obtain, evaluate and communicate information; solve problems; respectfully critique others’ work and methodologies; and of course engage in teamwork.
With the framework in place, Dobson and her fellow teachers immersed the children in the project. It began with visits to several local spans, including the Pulp Mill Bridge and the Battell Bridge in Middlebury, and the Child’s Bridge in Weybridge. They viewed a video detailing construction of the Cross Street Bridge.
The students took hundreds of photos of the various bridges to serve as guides and inspiration for their own popsicle renditions. They made notes of trusses, decks, arches, support beams and other key elements that help bridges support weight.
This past Monday, Oct. 21, Weybridge Elementary students broke up into 10 teams made up of children in different grades. The teams were given 200 popsicle sticks and glue, and were told to spend about an hour during each of the ensuing four days taking their respective bridges from design to completion. Students were given great leeway in fashioning their spans; the only requirement was that each bridge had to be able to support 5 pounds of weight for at least one minute.
A team of four UTC officials was scheduled to visit the school on Friday, Oct. 25, to judge each span based on three categories: aesthetics, efficient use of materials, and weight-bearing capacity. Up to five points could be awarded in each of the three categories.
Students on Thursday were more than halfway done with their spans, some of which had already met the five-pound test.
“I like it that this is not too easy; it’s a challenge,” 5th-grader Mason Kaufmann said as he and his group surveyed their bridge deck and thought about whether to build an arch to help support it.
The team had to use math skills to calculate whether its span would meet the five-pound weight bearing threshold.
“At the beginning we thought it would not be able to hold the 5 pounds, but it did,” Kaufmann said cheerfully.
Five-year-old Ethan Ernstrom was clearly having a good time as he toiled way with his teammates.
“My friends are helping me build it,” he beamed.
Meanwhile, a group in a different classroom was building what it called the “Hawk Bridge,” so-named for its creative bird adornment, sure to win some points in the aesthetics judging category.
Students were excited about what they were able to accomplish together.
“We were all working on different things at the same time and we weren’t arguing,” said 1st-grader Julia Richmond.
Mejia, a Middlebury resident, was pleased with the students’ progress on Thursday.
“I think they are doing pretty well working in groups, talking through the process,” Mejia said, adding the value of the exercise at this point is more in the process the students follow than the end product.
Weybridge students will have a second go at engineering next spring, according to Dobson. The focus then will shift from bridges to wind power. Dobson next month will head to a National Science Teachers Association conference in Charlotte, N.C., to learn more about wind turbines in preparation for next spring.
She’s pleased with how the entire school community has embraced the project.
“I work with some amazing colleagues,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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