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By: Jo Ann Jones/College of Education and Human Development

Twenty-one middle and high school mathematics teachers from San Antonio participating in the South Texas STEM Educator Center in the College of Education and Human Development’s Academy for Teacher Excellence competed in a bridge building contest on Saturday, December 7. The South Texas STEM Center is funded by a three-year grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The contest marked the end of the professional development series for 2013.

For the competition, the teachers were split into groups of four and five and asked to construct a bridge using only newspaper and blue masking tape. The bridges had to weigh less than five pounds. According to Dr. Can Saygin, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and co-principle investigator for the South Texas STEM Educator Center grant, the competition served as a way to demonstrate active learning to the teachers.

“We put the teachers in teams of four and at every phase of the design process, we asked them to share their designs and experiences with the class,” said Saygin. “Knowing that there would be a competition at the end of workshop series in December, the teams became very competitive.”

The bridge building process took place the entire semester. Each of the team’s designs, he added, were kept a secret until the day of the competition, which was also their last workshop for the fall semester. The focus of these workshops was to educate the teachers about alternative, project-based strategies to implement in their classrooms.

“The bridge building project took the entire semester because Dr. Saygin broke it down for the teachers,” said Effie Mata, educational specialist for the Academy for Teacher Excellence and facilitator for the South Texas STEM Educator Center grant. “He wanted to make sure the teachers understood the engineering process involved in building the bridge. He also showed them how it related to mathematics, going step by step.”

To determine the winner, the bridges were placed between the edges of two tables. A large bucket was hung from the bridges and weights were gradually placed in it until the bridge collapsed. The bridge that held the most amount of weight without collapsing after 10 seconds, while also factoring in the weight of the bridge itself, was the winner.

The winning bridge, designed by Winslow Phillips, Zachary Beshea, Alison Jansa, and Jennifer Soto, weighed 2.33 pounds and could withstand 181 pounds without collapsing. The team was awarded first place medals, a trophy, and the bragging rights of being the winner of the inaugural competition.

“The teachers put in quite a bit of hours outside of the workshops to put the bridges together,” said Mata. “It was amazing to see how different the bridges were in the five groups.”

The 21 teachers participating in the South Texas STEM Educator Center represent several school districts around San Antonio, including Edgewood Independent School District and San Antonio Independent School District. The teachers met one Saturday a month beginning in September.

“In the South Texas STEM Educator Center, we have mathematics teachers who are working on project-based learning,” said Mata. “Our focus is to see how many Hispanic students we are affecting so that the students will go into the STEM areas after graduation. That’s what we want. We want our kids to be ready and prepared in the STEM areas.”

In addition to the bridge building some of the projects conducted in the workshops, Mata said, included a parachute egg drop and the construction of a catapult.

“Because testing is one of the major things they concentrate on during the school year, the teachers are looking for ideas on how to incorporate project-based learning in their classrooms and still be able to do the things the districts are asking for,” Mata added.

So far, she said, they have had a positive response from the participants, many of whom have incorporated some of these strategies in their classrooms.

“The most rewarding part of this professional development series was listening to the teachers tell us how they have implemented some of the concepts in their classes over the last few weeks following the workshops,” said Saygin.

The South Texas STEM Educator Center, whose workshops began in September, will continue to hold professional development workshops through 2016. Next summer, 20 more mathematics teachers will be selected to participate in the center. The 21 teachers currently involved in the center will act as their mentors.

“It’s very exciting to work with these teachers,” Mata said. “These teachers do a lot of training to prepare themselves and so it’s very exciting to see that passion and hear them say, ‘Yes, we want to be here!’”

For more information about the South Texas STEM Center, visit



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