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  • Writer's pictureAmy Wung Tsao

Engineering Strong Structures

Updated: Jan 20

A Note from Amy

My middle kid really wants to make a spaghetti bridge! The supplies have been in the closet for a month now, but even this STEM newsletter writer doesn’t always find time to fit in a great activity.


Once winter break starts though, I will be glad I have activity supplies ready to go in the closet already! How are you planning to keep the kids in your life busy during the upcoming break?

 

“A skyscraper is a boast in glass and steel.”

~ Mason Cooley

Low angle photo of city high rise buildings during daytime
Credit: Ben Dumond, Unsplash

We’ve already been talking about forces, motion, and simple machines. Let's build on those topics to learn about engineering strong structures.


Here are some of my favorite resources that introduce structural engineering to kids. (I am never paid to mention any of these resources; there are no affiliate links.)

 

Videos


What’s the tallest skyscraper anyone can build?

Mystery Doug (YouTube)

Mystery Doug asks (and answers) the best questions! We watched a lot of Mystery Doug when I was homeschooling. This 6 minute video covers the history of tall buildings, and explains why having strong building materials isn’t enough to build tall. The target audience is elementary age students, but I definitely learned things myself from this video!



What Makes Bridges So Strong?

SciShow Kids (YouTube)

This quickie 4 minute video introduces elementary-age kids to triangle shapes in bridge design, and the differences between a beam bridge, a truss bridge, and a suspension bridge! Next time you drive over a bridge, see if your kid can identify what kind of design the bridge designers used.



Pigs in the Wind (Season 1, Episode 2)

The Magic School Bus Rides Again (Netflix or available to buy on YouTube)

Keesha is determined to build a sturdy brick tower for their school play “The Three Little Pigs 2.” But everything they build blows over in a strong wind! Can trees swaying in the wind teach the class how to build wind-proof towers too?

 

Books

by Anastasia Suen, illustrated by Ryan O’Rourke

Illustration of construction workers lowering rebar into a trench dug into the ground.

Kids who love construction vehicles will love reading through the steps of building a skyscraper, from digging a trench for the foundation to lifting the rooftop spire up with a crane. You can read just the rhyming stanzas to preschool kids, or read the whole thing to older kids who want more detail.



By Kim Smith

Illustration of a young black girl building colorful houses and tunnels from cardboard.

This sweet story is more about teamwork than how to build strong structures, but little readers are sure to be inspired by what the Boxitects build out of upcycled cardboard boxes!



By April Jones Prince, illustrated by François Roca

Cover image of circus elephants parading on the Brooklyn Bridge.

This gorgeously illustrated picture book tells the true story of P.T. Barnum parading 21 circus elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge to prove how strong the newly built bridge was.


 

Activities


Build a Cup Tower

SciShow Kids (Youtube)

Kids can easily build cup towers along with this 4 minute video. They’ll learn by doing how wider bases help with stability. They’ll need at least 6 paper or plastic cups, depending on how high they can stack!



Little Bins for Little Hands

2D and 3D shapes made out of toothpicks held together by marshmallows.

Next time my kids ask for hot chocolate, I’m going to give them extra marshmallows and toothpicks for building. Younger kids can just make 2D and 3D shapes, while older kids can try to build the tallest tower they can!



Science Buddie

Hair dryer pointed at a gingerbread house.

Building a gingerbread house is a little more involved than just sticking some marshmallows on toothpicks. But if you have the time, this is a really fun idea to put your gingerbread house through an earthquake test and a wind test! I love that this could also get kids thinking about how structures can be strong in some situations but weak in others.


 

I hope you found something fun to build…or topple!


Cat batting at a Jenga tower.
Credit: Giphy

Next month I’m excited to take this email newsletter into outer space! There’s so much fun space science to cover, it may take a few months to cover it all.


Until then, have fun lighting sparks of curiosity!

Amy Wung Tsao


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