The Bridge Project in my geometry class of 2014 was nothing short of amazing in both the complexity of some of the designs and the overall success of the students who participated in the project. The rules were very simple -
1. Use any materials that were provided to span a distance of 18 inches at a width of 4 inches.
2. You could use any design that you felt would best support the weight of textbooks as they were placed in the middle.
3. A bridge was considered broken when the books hit the floor. Bending and twisting was fine as long as the bridge survived and held the books up off the floor.
Of course all the students started off with some simple designs and with some prodding we were able to start to incorporate some of the better geometric shapes that one would see in simple trestle style bridges.
I warned them that there would be twists and that we would introduce rules that would either simplify or make the bridge building progress more complex depending on their ability to maneuver through the changing environment.
This project coincided with the history class learning about communism and capitalism during the cold war, so of course both the history teacher and myself decided that we had to figure out a way to separate the groups based on east/west and have them act out a bit of the Iron Curtain time period along with the differences between a simplistic capitalism and a simplistic communism style economies.
New rules were introduced. On an arbitrary day I told the classroom that the west side was not capitalist and the east side was communist and proceeded to give the capitalist side more sticks to solidify them as my "favorite group" and started to foment a bit of discord with the differences in the economies. I also allowed both side the ability to form "black markets" to sell items such as wood glue, foil, tape, and other construction materials to make their bridges better and stronger. This led them to having to make a choice between a large amount of sticks "materials" or a large amount of specialty items. Of course the currency was only in stick, and soon kids were trying to find ways to get more sticks for any little thing.
Now it was time to work on the communist side a little bit. The history teacher came in one day with a bag full of sticks and made an elaborate show of handing them out to only the groups that sided with him. We had some harsh words, (in jest of course), to build more tension and then he left.
The next history class I "air-lifted" in sticks to my groups while they were in his class. Harsh words ensued and the mood started to feel downright nationalistic. We then decided it was time for a propaganda campaign. Both sides were encouraged to have their own leaders who of course were paid for their services in sticks, and also worked to create a bit of discord and spy on the opposing sides. These groups held lunch rallies, and started taping up slogans and signs in the opposing classrooms.
The game was on.
After a great few weeks of teaching them both how easy it was to build micro-economies and how fast one can give into nationalistic zeal, it was time to do the best part of the project. Stack weight on the bridges until they gave way in a catastrophic failure that would get caught on slow-motion camera.
The video is about three minutes long and shows all the collapsing bridges. The winner held an amazing 190 pounds (me standing on it).
At the end of the unit we had a bit of reflection on how they felt about the project and how the economic systems played into it. Based on the feedback I am sure that the time period in history was much more interesting based on our cross-curricular approach.