Paper Bridge Design Challenge

Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies and Prof. Margot Vigeant of Bucknell University
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Lesson/Lesson Plan
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.




Students will design and make bridges out of folded pieces of paper, and test how much weight they can hold using pennies. Students will be able to explain how a bridge’s shape can make it stronger and perform tests to compare different bridge designs and determine which one can support more weight.  (Please note this is an introductory lesson and the hub contains a second resource Paper Bridge Materials Design Challenge that can be utilized as an extension.)

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Early Elementary
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

K-2-ETS1-1 Ask questions, make observations, and gather information about a situation people want to change to define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Before students start this design challenge students to make observations during an introductory video in which people are walking across a bridge and it collapses before they can cross to the other side. (Please note this video is embedded on the lesson plan.) The lesson plan contains guiding questions the teacher can use. Students will then solve a simple problem, “How does the shape of a bridge affect its strength?” by developing their own paper bridge.

2-PS1-2 Analyze data obtained from testing different materials to determine which materials have the properties that are best suited for an intended purpose.

Clarification Statement: Examples of properties could include, strength, flexibility, hardness, texture, and absorbency.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment of quantitative measurements is limited to length.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
To meet this Performance Expectation students will design a bridge out of a single sheet of paper. The teacher should remind students that materials have different properties such as hardness (resistance to scratching and pressure); strength (amount of force needed to break a material); toughness (resistance to breaking by cracking); stiffness (amount of force needed to change the shape of a material); elasticity (ability to return to its original shape when a force is removed); and etc. To complete this design challenge, students will have to manipulate their paper and consider properties such as hardness, flexibility, and strength as they build their bridges. After students have completed and tested their designs they can collect data regarding the bridge’s shape and the number of pennies that design held. The teacher should engage students in a discussion related to properties. For example, What do you noticed about bridge design 1? How did they manipulate the paper to ensure stiffness? What are the differences between the bridge that held the most pennies and the bridge that held the least amount of pennies?

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students must address how the shape of a bridge affects its strength and construct an argument with evidence to support their claim by asking and identifying questions based on their bridge design. This resource contains guiding questions and suggestions to engage students in argumentation and in relevance. For example, before students build their bridge, they must address the following questions: “Why do we need bridges? Why is it important for bridges to be strong and sturdy? What can you do to the paper to make it support more weight?” Students are allowed to build more than one bridge and try to determine which bridge will hold the most pennies? After building their bridges and recording their results, students will discuss the results as a class using the following prompts: “Which bridges held the most pennies? The least? What shape were they? Are there other factors that affect the strength, like how careful you are when building the bridge, or how firmly you crease the paper when folding? Based on what you learned from other groups, how would you change your bridge design to make it stronger?”

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students will manipulate the paper to exhibit properties (stiffness, hardness, and etc.) in an attempt to build a bridge that can hold the most pennies. Students will collect data (a graphic organizer is provided) on six different bridge’s shapes and the amount of weight (number of pennies) each bridge was able to support. Students will then discuss which design held the most pennies.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The teacher should help students make connections with paper bridge designs, how engineers utilize a variety of materials and that the different materials serve a purpose. In this case, the focus is on the properties of one type of material so the teacher should explicitly address how manipulating the paper creates a variety of properties.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
This crosscutting concept can be met when students test their bridges, gather evidence, and have a discussion on the materials they used. To further meet this expectation, the teacher should utilize the suggestions provided in the second practice “engaging in argument from evidence”.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students will make connections that, with every human-made product such as bridges, the design requires some knowledge of the natural world and is built using materials found in the natural world. Students will engage in conversations based on data that discusses how manipulating (folding, creasing, and etc.) the materials provide more structure and stability for their bridges.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This lesson addresses all three dimensions of learning as defined by the NGSS. This lesson meets the Performance Expectation for second grade, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and a K-2 engineering design activity by having students construct bridges out of paper with a focus on physical properties.

  • Instructional Supports: This resource contains guiding questions throughout the lesson; lesson plan variations; career connections; and a data table (graphic organizer) that teachers can replicate and use with their students.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: This resource contains a graphic organizer that students can utilize to collect data and guiding questions that can be utilized for anecdotal notes throughout the design challenge. To strengthen this area the teacher can utilize the guiding questions and have students draw and write in their science journals.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource contains a video on a bridge collapsing which is used as a phenomenon to engage students before they design their bridges and provides relevance to the bridge challenge. The resource provides two links under the “Teacher Prep” tab that teachers can utilize to help build background knowledge on materials. The “Cross Sections - Math is Fun” resource provides information on cross sections. This resource can be utilized to help students draw a cross section of their bridge. The “Easy Science for Kids” website contains information about bridges written in kid-friendly language.