The 2019 Design Challenge – Building Bridges

Nancy Ward
At Clairbourn School, we believe the engineers of tomorrow, who will shape our systems, machines, and infrastructures are in the process of awakening to their talents and life-purpose. The all-important spark destined to fire up their career dreams can come from anywhere, and often those moments happen at school thanks to an inspiring teacher, a visiting speaker, or a memorable project.
Most high schools and colleges do a good job of identifying and serving students with obvious STEM proclivities, but that can leave out a lot of students who have hidden potential in these fields. We all know of students who claim, "I'm not good at math" or "I don't have a creative bone in my body," but is that true? Could it mean that they lacked the opportunity at a young age to identify themselves as having those abilities?
First-graders test how much weight their elevated bridge design can hold during
the Engineering Design Challenge final competition event.

Clairbourn School has a goal for all of its students to self-identify as engineers, designers, and problem-solvers. Even if they don't make a career out of those skills, students should be aware of the breadth of their abilities and the hidden talents they possess. That’s why Clairbourn provides plenty of opportunities for
STEM exploration during each school year, including the annual Engineering Design Challenge week.

Fourth-graders show what they have learned about building bridges by designing their bridge deck with triangles that add strength and support while minimizing the amount of materials needed.  
This Design Challenge involves students from 1st to 8th grade, and it gives all of them opportunities to build and rebuild projects after consulting with industry engineering experts. Middle School Science Teacher Joanna Kibbe coordinates this multi-grade activity which involves picking the right concept to explore, assembling a ton of supplies into kits for each student team (enough to rebuild twice), and lots of scheduling and coordination of the building and testing opportunities.

This year, students were asked to build bridges that could hold increasing amounts of weight on the bridge deck without collapsing. They were all supplied with identical raw-material kits including items like popsicle sticks, hot glue, string, and more. The bridge had to span a 40cm gap. Older students were asked to build a suspension-style bridge, and younger students were asked to build raised bridges. The kindergarten was also involved in this activity, in an age-appropriate way, and they created virtual bridge designs drawn on iPads and then shared them using Nearpod software.

  Visiting Chief Bridge Engineer from Skanska, John Schroerlucke, was on hand to advise students on the principles of building bridges and he also gave each team tips on how to improve their designs.
The Engineering Challenge allows students to make a first attempt to solve the problem at hand with their own raw ideas independent of any specific knowledge or instructions. When these first designs were tested, the failure rate was high, but students learned from each other’s designs and learned to identify the structural weaknesses that they needed to solve. When the engineering experts arrived on campus the next day, the students were eager to learn their tips and building strategies that would produce strong and functional designs.

Think about it before you actually make it—especially from the beginning  because you can always improve.
– Anderson G., 4th Grade

You can’t waste your supplies otherwise you won’t have anything to add support.

– Jason Q., 4th Grade

Triangles are best for bridge-making. They make the bridge really strong.
– Andy H. 5th Grade


The second build happened right after the talk from the engineers, followed by opportunities to ask the experts questions during their classroom visits. This second build produced a crop of new bridges with contestants who went on to compete in the final design challenge where one overall winner was produced. This year, the top bridge builders were eighth-graders Isabel C. and Jason L. who built a suspension bridge that held 19.5kg in weight. That is 43 pounds! (See the video of their winning project below.)

John Schroerlucke is the Chief Bridge Engineer and Bob Walent is the Engineering Manager for the Skanska 6th Street Viaduct Replacement Bridge Project in Downtown Los Angeles.  
The visiting engineers, who advised our students, were from Skanska, and they included John Schroerlucke and Bob Walent. In their presentation, they showed students their impressive 6th Street Viaduct Replacement Bridge project in Los Angeles. John Schroerlucke is the Chief Bridge Engineer, and Bob Walent is the Engineering Manager for that project. Their presentation showed all aspects of the building the bridge, from the CAD drawings to the scale models to photos of sections of the bridge currently under construction. Of special interest was the video of the giant bridge bearings in action designed to absorb shock from an earthquake letting the bridge move back and forth without the structure getting damaged.

They also explained various bridge building styles such as arch bridges, forced-arch bridges, and suspension bridges and how each style distributes and carries load differently. Their presentation and advice made an enormous difference in the second round of projects built by the students. Armed with their new insights into bridge engineering, students created stronger and more elaborate structures that held larger amounts of weight, while simultaneously learning to self-identify as capable engineers in their own right.

I learned that bridges need a lot of support.
– Mark L., 1st Grade

We all had to work on different things, and that makes it easier and quicker to get things done.
– Carson P., 3rd Grade

I learned that we have to compromise.
– Emily K., 3rd Grade


The student body considers the Engineering Design Challenge to be a major highlight of the school year thanks to all of the building opportunities and the excitement of the challenge. And the parents like it too! All parents want capable accomplished children who go on to have successful lives and careers—and that begins with a right-fit school that knows how to develop the interests and talents of its students. As the world gets more technical, the problems that need to be solved require higher-level thinking, and students prepared to take on large-scale challenges. And that is why Clairbourn School is a great choice for families looking to give their students an amazing advantage in life.

A lot of planning and effort goes into a school-wide activity like the annual Engineering Design Challenge at Clairbourn. Middle School Science Teacher Joanna Kibbe is the person who coordinates this multi-grade activity.


Clairbourn School Provides Private School Education for Preschool, Kindergarten, Elementary School, and Middle School Grades | Serving Families in the Pasadena, California, Area and Surrounding Cities (K-12 Private Schools) | Clairbourn is a 501(c)3 charitable organization. Click here to request information.

Private School Education for Preschool, Kindergarten, Elementary School, & Middle School Grades - Serving Families in the Pasadena Area and Surrounding Cities
Clairbourn is a 501(c)3 charitable organization. (K-12 Private Schools)