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Building Fun: 5 Civil Engineering Activities for the Classroom

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 (Courtesy of Chelsea Smith/ U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The Next Generation Science Standards require science teachers to integrate engineering into their classes across science disciplines. Many teachers will be doing this for the first time--and we are here to help. Our Engineering Is video series, associated media collections and e-books showcase examples of scientists and engineers working together to solve real-world problems. Our latest video in the series, “Engineering Is Converting Buses to Showers for the Homeless,” illustrates the civil engineering feat of taking old public transportation buses and turning them into mobile shower facilities. But this is just one example of how civil engineers are helping people. What all does civil engineering entail? Here are five fun classroom activities to introduce middle and high school students to concepts covered in civil engineering.

Shapes that Make Structures Strong
This lesson plan from WGBH on PBS LearningMedia combines multimedia resources and multiple hands-on activities to illustrate tension and compression. Students learn how domes, arches and triangles can distribute forces to make structures stronger. The lesson plan is designed to cover three class periods and is aimed at middle school students. PBS LearningMedia offers media, lesson plans and activities on a variety of topics, including civil engineering-- and it’s free to sign up.

Building Big
Building Big is a WGBH-produced five-part PBS series that includes associated educator guides and classroom activities. It explores what it takes to build big structures like bridges, domes, skyscrapers, dams, and tunnels. The series website offers a variety of supports for middle school students including interactive engineering labs and interactive engineering challenges designed to help students learn and apply fundamental concepts central to civil engineering. There are career profiles of different types of civil engineers and a writing assignment where students explore and write about local structures they find interesting.

Build a Spaghetti Bridge
In this hands-on activity geared for middle school, teams of students work together to design and build a bridge out of spaghetti that spans a specified length. Teams test the bridges to see how much weight each bridge can hold and draw conclusions based on their findings. TeachEngineering is a great resource for free teacher-tested, standard-aligned engineering lesson plans and activities for K-12.

Design a Dome
In this lesson, students learn about supports and frames for structures, and work in teams to design, build and test a small dome that supports 120 grams of weight. The lesson plan also includes suggested reading and videos for students. TryEngineering is another website that provides valuable engineering resources.


Disaster-Proof Housing
In this in-depth activity, students design and create models of sturdy homes for areas where hurricanes, monsoons and typhoons can destroy houses. Students work together to identify the engineering problem and criteria by researching areas where houses are often destroyed by these natural disasters, and then design, test and build models. The lesson plan contains suggested modifications to the activity based on grade level and time available. Check out more engineering resources at eGFI, brought to you by the American Society for Engineering Education.

We’d love to hear from you about your favorite activities to bring civil engineering into your classroom. Do you have recommendations? If you try one of these activities, let us know how it goes. Write to us in the comments below or tweet us @KQEDedspace.

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