Dexter 4th graders are now building bridges, literally, and watching them fail. This past Monday night, representatives from Wylie Elementary’s STEAM Teams presented Dexter’s Board of Education with the results of their Fred Pelham Bridge Research.
Jeff Dagg, an instructional coach for the school district, along with 4th grade teacher Deb Eber have been working with students in the emerging practice of “place-based” curriculum. Their subject: what makes bridges work, or fail? Part of the program included having the fourth-graders build bridges and then load them to the point of collapse.
“Place-based” education is aimed at helping communities by employing students and school staff in solving community problems. The difference from conventional text and classroom based education is that it recognizes and accepts students’ local area as one of the primary learning resources. Place-based education encourages learning that is rooted in the local unique history, environment, culture, and economy of a particular area – the students’ own “place” or community.
Several students were on hand to walk the Board and audience through what place-based learning looks like in the classroom and the community.
Fourth-grader Zoe Harker introduced the presenters and began the presentation: “We began our study of bridges by watching a video of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsing. We generated a lot of questions about how bridges stay up. The questions fell into categories that led to several investigations.”
Classmate Quinn Newton took over from there, telling the audience: “One example of an investigation was the paper bridge challenge. We worked in teams to design bridges that had to meet certain specifications with limited resources and a limited budget. We loaded the bridges until they collapsed. We used what we learned about structure failures to build better bridges the next time.”
The students then began investigating their model bridge’s structural failure. Inquiry charts of what they observed, what it meant and then the critical thinking of what could be done about it were employed. This of course led to more questions and discussion.
Wylie student Sophia Bell explains: “We have been keeping science journals for our drawings, predictions, observations, and models. We learned the difference between scientific models and scale models. All bridges have similarities. Bridge models can be applied to other structures.”
The next step is sitting down with the entire group and talking through your findings with them. Kai Tchoryk describes the experience: “The students sit in a circle for class discussions. We call on each other and challenge ourselves not to be ‘hogs’ or ‘logs’. When we contribute to the discussion, we say ‘I agree’, ‘I would add’, or ‘I respectfully disagree’ and give evidence to support our thinking.”
That is the classroom part. Now comes the place-based experience of how their learning of bridges relates to the Dexter area. Catie Hoffman explains: “Our teams took a walking tour of Mill Creek Park to learn about the history and structure of our local bridges. We saw where the main street bridge replaced the previous bridge and dam. We talked about the stone arch bridges. We also discussed the pedestrian bridge under the Mill Creek Bridge.”
“On the way back to the school, we studied the interpretive signs in Mill Creek Park and stopped at Forest Lawn Cemetery to pay our respects to Mrs. Warner, who died crossing the railroad tracks before the viaduct was built.”
The students learned that Dexter’s stone arch bridge has a story. The bridge was built after the citizens of the Dexter area petitioned the railroad company after Martha Warner’s death to make the crossing safer. Both bridges were designed by Frederick Pelham, the first African-American to receive an engineering degree from the University of Michigan.
After all of their work and study, the fourth-graders reconsidered their original question of study. Ryan Graydon told the audience: “After all our investigations, we came back to our original question of ‘How do bridges stay up?’ We formed teams to redesign the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Our teams also acted as experts to offer suggestions to other teams to help them make revisions before they submitted their final designs.”
The work for the industrious students didn’t end with just figuring out what makes a safer bridge. Like their studies, their efforts are also “place-based” reaching out to enhance the community where they live.
Dexter Krueger explains their ongoing effort:
“We wanted to share our bridge studies and our sign proposal with our peers, our families, the people who supported our research, and the community so we held a reception in our classrooms. We tested our plan with other classes in the building and invited Mrs. Steadman’s class to visit from Bates.
“The Dexter Bakery donated a cake with a picture of Fred Pelham on it for the real event. Mayor Keogh came to the reception and did the honors of cutting the cake. We had visitors from the University of Michigan, the WISD, the Michigan Department of Education, and the local historical societies.
“We have raised enough money to cover the estimated $2,000 needed for the sign. Any additional funds we raise will go toward other civic engagement projects connected with the history and natural areas of Dexter. If the city approves the sign, we hope to get it built and installed before the end of the year. We have contacts who know Fred Pelham’s relatives and hope to invite them to an unveiling ceremony.”
While the students were giving their presentation to the Board of Education, another contingent from their team was presenting a request to Dexter City Council for approval of their interpretive signs to be placed in Mill Creek Park.
Other science projects have included Michigan Fossils, Lakeshore Erosion, Wylie Whirlwind, Physics of Sledding, and Genius Hour. Future projects will include Waves (music) and Storm Water and Land Use.
Place-based curriculum is compatible to the STEAM teams already in place at Wylie. STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking.