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Quest Walkthrough: History of Bridges and Truss Bridge Design

By: Lina Chopra Haldar, PhD, Mathematics Quest Designer

Quest Forward Learning offers quests that exemplify an interdisciplinary, project-based approach to learning. This helps students draw important connections across disciplines, develop problem-solving skills, stay motivated, and better prepare themselves for real-world problems and future careers. One example of this is the Mathematics and Science teams’ collaboration on the Exploration Phase curriculum, which resulted in four short courses: Gardening, Projectiles, Music, and Bridges. As the quest designer for History of Bridges and Truss Bridge Design, I was able to illustrate the interdisciplinary, project-based values of Quest Forward Learning while connecting geometry with physics.

The “Basic Information” page of History of Bridges and Truss Bridge Design asks the driving question, “Why has the truss bridge been such a popular design over the years?” For many students, this page incites curiosity, as students will want to know what a truss bridge is and how it differs than other types of bridges.

Activity 1 answers many questions that will likely come up for students. The resources include texts and videos that help them understand how bridges have evolved over time, and what the features of different types of bridges are. This brief historic overview of bridge design explains  how technology, the availability of materials, and an increasing need for stronger and more expansive bridges informed the development of bridge design. The truss bridge receives special attention because students will design one as their final artifact for the course.

Activity 2 explores the role of triangles in truss bridge design. Students watch different videos that explain why triangles are “strong” shapes, and they begin to think about how triangles distribute weight differently from other shapes. This activity highlights an understanding in both Mathematics and Science—emphasizing the importance of a shape while creating an opportunity for students to delve further into Geometry. It also provides a foundation for later Science quests, where ideas of “strong” triangles are further introduced through the concept of forces as vectors.

Activities 3 and 4 create opportunities for students to revisit Geometry topics from earlier grades, practice classifying polygons, and reflect on how different shapes create stable structures. They see how different bridge designs utilize different types of triangles, and investigate why an engineer would make certain choices about which triangles to use. Students ultimately recognize that there are many ways in which they can bring triangles and quadrilaterals together as the building blocks for their own truss bridge designs.

Students write two paragraphs in Activity 4, in response to an open-ended question about their favorite bridge design, and the similarities and differences across designs. Students compare different truss bridge designs, identifying advantages and disadvantages of each. They articulate what makes some bridges stronger than others, a critical question they will explore in later quests as they learn about the forces acting on bridges. The open-ended nature of this question promotes curiosity and exploration while providing flexibility for individualized responses. Recording students’ early design ideas allows both students and mentors to see how their ideas develop and progress through the course.

History of Bridges and Truss Bridge Design is the first Mathematics quest and the second quest in the Bridges course. This quest should provide students with the tools they need for subsequent Mathematics and Science quests, while simultaneously engaging them in an active learning experience that aligns with Quest Forward Learning’s quest-design principles.

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