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Toothpick Structures Teach Teamwork, Economics


With toothpicks and miniature cups of glue priced at $500 apiece, Wyoming Intermediate School fifth-graders quickly learned that building a bridge with a $100,000 faux budget was no easy task.

Zachary Trepins works on his group’s bridge
Zachary Trepins works on his group’s bridge

“This costs a lot of money and it’s extra hard,” said Arieanna Sheets, who served as project manager in her group, named Wolf Pack Bridge Company. “It takes teamwork to build a bridge.”

Social studies teacher Wendy Kiel decided to turn an economics unit into a real-life project on business ownership. Good financing, planning, budgeting, organization and collaboration were necessary to build a sturdy bridge by the due date and without going in the red.

Students pieced together the tiny wooden beams and gluey “cement” by using blueprints to design trusses and bridge roads in groups, with members assigned to the roles of contractor, materials handler, architect and project manager.

Caleb Beltram and Emansio Vasquez assemble their bridge
Caleb Beltram and Emansio Vasquez assemble their bridge

“I was trying to tell them we need to get this done today,” said Tate Staffen, who worked as a project accountant, about helping his group stay on task. Tate and his group met their goals as the first team to complete the bridge’s trusses and road. By the end of class, they were ready to assemble it into a final structure. Tate explained how his group set aside funds to pay for extra materials in case of an emergency.

“It’s easier when you work together,” said Gonzalo Ordonez, the group’s architect.

Tate and Gonzalo’s company wasn’t the only one to have a good day: Kiel awarded all students with an extra bonus for cleaning up efficiently.

How to Build a Toothpick Bridge

  1. Study a real bridge
  2. Design your own
  3. Draw it on wax paper
  4. Lay out the toothpicks and glue them
  5. Remove the first truss, then glue the second one
  6. When you’ve finished both sides, stand them up and glue on the cross beams

Not as Easy As It Looks

The project led to a few “meltdowns” on the way to success, as groups realized they were running out of time and money, Kiel said. Students had to learn hard lessons on what happens when you lose your toothpicks or waste the glue: fork over another check.

“The money’s probably been the biggest problem,” said Jacob Herrema, project manager for his group, Steel Machine Inc.

But students were often awarded with bonuses for good work, or got to take advantage of material sales, helping them stay within budget.

A student adds weight to his group’s bridge during the final competition to see which bridge was the strongest
A student adds weight to his group’s bridge during the final competition to see which bridge was the strongest

Calling teamwork a “big fifth-grade standard,” Kiel said students had to understand fees, fines, bonuses, meeting deadlines and setting priorities as a group to make steady progress on their bridges.

After completing the project, the students tested their pieces’ durability by hanging weights off them to see how well they stayed intact. Bridges proved strong, with some supporting more than eight pounds of weight.

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Example of Toothpick Bridge

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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