Written by: on December 6, 2016 @ 10:29 am


S.T.E.A.M. has become a hot topic in the world of education. It is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Mathematics for guiding student inquiry, discussion, creativity and critical thinking skills.

Today we are going to focus in on the Engineering side of S.T.E.A.M. So what is engineering anyways? Basically, anything that is built must first be engineered, or in other words, planned out. An engineer is a person who designs and builds complex products, machines, systems, or structures.

Engineering combines science and mathematics to create structures and devices to solve problems.
-Need a bridge? Ask and engineer.
-Need to keep food cold? Ask an engineer.
-Need to keep your house from falling down? Ask an engineer!

The engineering process involves 5 steps called the ABDCE: Ask/Problem, Brainstorm, Design, Create, Evaluate/Test. Encourage your junior scientists’ and teach them about the engineering process with this fun, seasonal gumdrop challenge below.

Gumdrop Challenge

Engineering always starts with a problem to solve.  For the gumdrop challenge the problem is: how can you build a structure with just 10 gumdrops and 20 tooth picks that can hold up a text book?

Strength in Triangles

Let’s brainstorm! What shapes are super strong?  Should your structure be skinny or have a wider base?  What will it look like – a house, a dome, a teepee?

Some shapes are stronger than others.  Triangles for instance are super stable and can be found in many bridge and house designs where extra strength is needed. Even in nature you find the triangle.  Pine trees generally have a triangle-like shape so that they don’t topple over when heavy snow falls.  You tend to find a lot of pine trees in colder climates for this reason.

A Frame House. Image Source: By Peterparr at English via Wikimedia Commons


Image Source: Pixabay.com


So what makes the triangle so strong? The triangle can hold large loads without collapsing because of its inherent structural qualities and it is the only shape that has this level of stability and rigidity. For instance, triangles have three hinged connections, while squares have four right-angle connections.  The acute angles of the hinged connections help fix the triangle’s shape, even when a force is applied, because the edges are compressing against each other providing support. When forces are applied to a square, it easily loses its shape and becomes a parallelogram because its connections lack that angled compression unique to triangles. Engineers often add a diagonal through the middle of a square, basically turning it into two triangles and making it stronger. Even hexagons have hidden triangles within their shape that add stability!

Gumdrop Design Time:

Draw out your gumdrop structure. What will it look like?  How will you incorporate triangles? Can you do it without triangles?

Many structures look like one shape but actually are made up of several connected triangles.

-Truss bridges are used to span greater distances than your basic beam bridge.  They tend to look like trapezoids, but are actually made up of chains of alternating triangles.

Truss Bridge. Image Source: By Teemu Vehkaoja via Wikimedia Commons

-Epcot at Walt Disney World looks like a giant golf ball BUT when you look closer you can see it is just a massive amount of triangles arranged to create a sphere.

Spaceship Earth at Epcot Walt Disney World, Florida. Image Source: CC BY-SA 3.0CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Spaceship Earth tiles. Image Source: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons

Build and Test your Structure:

The next step in the engineering process is to build your gumdrop structure.  Try a bunch of different designs:  with or without triangles, skinny and tall, squat and low, dome shaped. Try to guess which will do best!


For the final step, test your structures by placing a book on top of each one.  Which structure holds up the book best?  What improvements can you make to achieve your goal?

Reflect and Rebuild:

Like any good scientist, you’ll test your structure, assess its effectiveness, and then go back to the design step to improve it! Science is all about experimenting, adjusting, and repeating your efforts until you reach your desired outcome. Plus, when you’re done you get to eat some yummy gumdrops.

Gumdrop Bridge. Image Source: By Oregon Department of Transportation Uploaded by Smallman12q via Wikimedia Commons


Gumdrop Structures Engineering Challenge


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