Schools to use bridge construction curriculum

Students will learn how construction workers use cranes, barges, decks and hand rails to operate on the bridge towers. (Gazette staff photo by Alicia Lebens)
Students will learn how construction workers use cranes, barges, decks and hand rails to operate on the bridge towers. (Gazette staff photo by Alicia Lebens)

Rising from the St. Croix River, the St. Croix Crossing Bridge is an engineering marvel more than 50 years in the making, and the Stillwater School District is seizing the opportunity to engage curious students with real-world science.

With resources, expertise and materials shared from the Minnesota (MnDOT) and Wisconsin (WisDOT) departments of transportation, teachers and staff from kindergarten to 12th grade are working to integrate bridge architecture, design, engineering, environmental studies, social studies and civics aspects to the schools’ curriculum.

“The kids recognize the bridge construction, the city, and they are interested in what is going on,” said Denise Cote, a curriculum specialist for Stillwater Area Public Schools. “We saw this as a learning opportunity.”

Cote brought teachers from across the district to meet with project engineers for a few hours every day June 16-19, and they were able to ask questions about different building aspects that would fit into the lessons they already teach.

“Through those meetings, the MnDOT folks were asking us questions about our curriculum,” Cote. “It was suggested that we visit the MnDOT materials lab. We were able to see how they make concrete, and we could use that as part of a science class.”

As the bridge project continues construction over the next few years, members of the MnDOT and WisDOT design, engineering, and management fields will be conducting classroom visits to present their careers and answer questions about what it takes to build a bridge. Fields trip are being planned to bring students closer to the constructions and put the concepts they are learning into context.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Lake Elmo Elementary teacher Julie Mock said. “What the kids are getting is an opportunity to learn about engineering that I never had when I was in school. It’s priceless.”

Stillwater schools are partnering with their contacts at MnDOT and WisDOT and the Hamline University Center for Global Environmental Education to create an iPad-based interactive program to view video and time lapse photography of the bridge being built, as well as level-appropriate programs to let students build and change bridge models.

“We took a boat tour of the bridge project, and you wouldn’t know that the teachers are on summer vacation,” said Tracy Fredin, director of Hamline’s Center for Global Environmental Education. “The MnDOT and WisDOT engineers were treated like rock stars, and answered hours of questions.”

The interactive program being developed by Hamline will take eight months to complete one of the five modules in the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) curriculum at a cost of $250,000, Fredin said.

“We will do the fundraising to complete the project, but it means a world of difference to have Stillwater schools back the project,” Fredin said. “We see this as a curriculum to be used at schools throughout the state and country, We will be using this project as a way to teach students on a national level about engineering.”

Fredin said he believes the bridge project can be used to teach students about the environmental and economic impacts of an infrastructure project, as well as how a bridge is constructed and designed.

“This is going to help set Stillwater with a national reputation for engineering education,” Board Member Mike Ptacek said. “This is going to fit into so many of our Project Lead the Way classes at the high school, but perfect for our civil engineering class.”

Throughout the summer, teacher will continue to meet with bridge engineers and project managers to write lesson plans and work with product designers and writers from Hamline University to design an interactive learning program.

“We will be the ones to test and pilot the program, before it is rolled out to other schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the coming years,” Cote said.

Lessons about the St. Croix Crossing bridge will start in the next school year, with a focus for the first year on engineering and the environment surrounding the bridge. In the future, civics, math, art and social studies will also see an influence from the bridge construction.

“We were able to work with teachers from all levels while we discussed curriculum for our own classrooms,” Mock said. “There were times we said that if a lower level were to teach one aspect of construction, the next level would be able to build on it as the kids move up. It was amazing to see that vertical education planning.”

Funding for the new curriculum and materials is being provided by MnDOT and WisDOT, a grant from The Partnership Plan for Stillwater Area Public Schools and from the Andersen Foundation. The curriculum will be used to enhance current lessons, and will align with relevant state standards.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]