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<Structural Modeling>


  • This unit on structural modeling will last one week. It will explore the significance and basic concepts of modeling structures using bridges as a case study. We will teach the students how physical structures can be represented and tested from within a computational framework. Bridges are a good example of structures that must be evaluated extensively before they are physically built. Additionally, there are a few programs (Engineering oriented games) that provide interfaces for both building the virtual bridges and testing their weight capacity under variable loads. Students will use a modeling program to test out ideas, and will build and test their structure using K'nex during the lab period.

Background Reading for Teachers and TAs

  • http://www.in.gov/indot/files/bridge_chapter_01.pdf
    • "Bridge building for dummies." Provides an explanation of the duties of Bridge Technicians and defines a number of terms associated with bridge constructions, as well as explaining some of the more common failure points and why they're failure points. This is perhaps unnecessary if the teachers and the TAs possessed a solid knowledge of the subject, but could be extremely helpful otherwise.

Good resources.Solid.

Reading Assignments for Students

  • http://pghbridges.com/basics.htm
    • This would make a good read for the beginning of the unit, introducing students to a number of different basic and advanced bridge types, and various tidbits of information about them. If so desired, this could be condensed into a handout.

Reference Material

Lecture Notes

These lectures are from a very high level. It would be helpful for us (reviewers, classmates, etc) to see more bullet points of what you're thinking about. For instance, why are modeling structures different than the earlier examples? This is very important. Ditto Ditto.

Lecture 1:


  • Review key concepts from the units on static and dynamic models, remind people of the difference, and how the two types of models work in conjunction.
  • Why do we want to model bridges and other structures before they are built?
    • Make sure to touch on why it's important to make sure that the construction of structures (such as bridges) is sound virtually rather than gamble on a strong construction in the field.
      • When I (Dylan) took POCO / Software Engineering, I recall a story that Charlie told about why someone he knew (I think it was his father) believed that software engineers, like other professions, should be required to get a governmental license to practice software engineering, due to the fact that now software is important enough and used widely enough that the failure of such can cause a loss of life. I believe that this story is very relevant to this point in the lecture.
  • Explain why how modeling structures such as bridges is different than earlier examples of fire, etc, and how certain key aspects of the procedure and underlying theory are the same
  • Prepare the class to do the lab. If they're going to use bridge builder, this section could be a demonstration of the software and features.

Lecture 2:

Wrap-up/Open Questions

  • Review Components of the Lab.
  • Display a table of each group's lab results, (max load) and might show an picture and give an explanation for the best (most efficient bridge)
  • Explain how best to determine the accuracy of a bridge model.
  • Where can we go from here?
    • Modeling building strain
    • Introduce the 'shake table' and show the split-screen illustration of the model building collapsing on the shake table next to the computer simulation.
    • Does physically constructing a miniture model have any upsides. What about the downsides?
    • Do bridge-builders actually build physical models, or is all the planning done in silico?
    • What are the positive features of using computational models, what are the downsides?
    • How will an increase in processor speeds impact these pros/cons?

Please answer your own questions so we get a better idea where you're going with this, both for reviewing and for teaching it. Also ditto.

Consider more background about why static models like this are useful and how they are used


Nice work!
  • The lab session will require the students to build K'nex models of bridges they designed in software. This lab will be completed in groups.
  • I think you have all of the sections, but some of them are repeated twice, which I'm very confused about... Merge the double software and bill of materials sections!

Pre-Lab Assignment

Excellent! Myes, I like this better as a pre-lab assignment. Good stuff.

  • Remember to relocate past comments!

Students will complete a certain number of levels in the software program Bridge Construction Set described below. The first lecture will give them a sense of which designs are most efficient and hopefully encourage them to try to build the most efficient bridge possible, using the fewest number of components.


Bridge Construction Set

  • A bridge-building computer game. It offers a fairly detailed 3-D OpenGL model visualization. The game is organized into stages of increasing complexity. Available for Mac OS X / Linux / Windows.
    • After completing the demo levels, it seems that we might want to actually get liscences. The game is actually really fun. Different levels use different bridge building materials, such as iron (the basic component) steel, and cable.
    • We decided to use BCS because it visualizes the bridges in 3-D, and 3-D modeling software should make the students more comfortable translating their models to physical Knex models. (described later)
  • Where will they be expected to use this software? If this is a pre-lab assignment, do they still have to come to a computer lab to use the licensed version?
Bill of Materials
  • Bridge Construction Set is not free software. A full license costs $19.99. A fully playable demo is available free for Mac OS X/linux/windows
    • The demo allows gameplay up to level 5. Completing all five levels took me about 10-15 minutes. Note they are denoted easy. From what I've seen on youtube, this game gets a lot harder. That's so cool that you looked it up on youtube!
    • When a user opens the program, the last construction for that level is loaded. The software (even the demo) makes it easy to switch between levels.


My only major suggestion would be to keep all of the meaning here while trying to simplify the way you say it. In other words, if you could write it as directions to give to the students, rather than as something for the teacher (while still keeping information necessary for the teacher in bullet points below). Ditto

  • Students will split into lab groups four students per lab group.
  • Each group will use Knex to construct the most efficient bridge built in Bridge Construction Set software. (completed for the prelab assignment) Students are asked to determine the most cost efficient ( an cost amount limits the amount of materials you can use from within the software) The BCS software automatically saves the bridges created, (and allows you to save to a file) so students will be able to call them up at lab time.
  • The Knex models will be built according to certain specifications that have yet to be defined, because we do not have access to the actual Knex. Is a sample being ordered or borrowed?
  • When groups are satisfied with their Knex model, they will test its integrity by placing the bridge between tables/chairs/etc and hanging weights off the bridge.
  • While bridge construction set renders the bridges in 3 Dimensions, we are open to the possibility of simplifying the lab process (and potentially allowing for more trials in the period, say, 3 instead of just one.) by reducing the bridge to 2-Dimensions. The test weight will only apply a downward force, and with sufficient support on either side the bridge should support a load. Again, we will perform tests when we get Knex in hand.
    • While discussing this lab in class, someone mentioned that Knex might not break the way we expect them to break. I am confident that once we have Knex in our hands to test, we will be able to determine how Knex respond to excessive load. Good job addressing comments from class.
  • Groups will be instructed to compare the point of failure in both their Knex models and their Bridge Construction Set models. The students will compare how stress is distributed both within software (using the stress display function) and make empirical observations of stress as they test their Knex models. Can they make an estimation of how the stress is being distributed when the weights are applied? Can this estimation be verified?
  • Students should be familiar with wikis by now, so instruct them to insert a picture of their bridge, (taken with the cameras on the imacs) and the max load the bridge could hold into a table in the wiki.


  • Required elements
    • Screen Shot of the Bridge Construction set model used to build the Knex model. An explanation of the structure. What structural properties allow the bridge to support weight?
    • Image of Knex construction. This must be a (fairly detailed, probably hand drawn) diagram of the bridge, annotated to indication the stress distribution observed during testing (both in silico and with Knex) They will compare the physical model with the software model. How are they different, how much weight did the bridge support? Make sure they take detailed notes on the video capture of the bridge breaking. How did the Knex break? Does the physical verify or validate the simulation? Does this experiment support or invalidate either model? Both models?
  • Visualization opportunities
    • Not really, because we have no way of observing the precise stress on the bridge. Only qualitative data. Students will be able to make informed conconclusions, but will not be able to produce a graph or a table of their observations.
  • Optional elements
    • Build additional bridges from higher levels. Does running multiple trials further support (or reject) your claims? This is dependent on us purchasing licenses, right?


  • This lab will rely on a pre-lab assignment using Bridge Construction Set. The students will have created bridge models in silico, and the goal of this lab is to build those models using Knex.

Bill of Materials

  • New estimate of costs based on licensed software?
  • K'nex Bulk Pack - Knex on ebay
    • We deliberated long and hard over whether to use the PASCO bridge set or K'Nex. We decided that K'nex would be a better option for a few reasons.
      • 1. They break. Knex break under load, and this is a positive feature. The Pasco bridge parts are not intended to break but instead are built to be highly durable. To use the PASCO kit to validate the physical model by determining the maximum load would rely on a $399 load sensor kit per group.
      • 2. Breaking things is fun. If the above rational wasn't enough, we both agreed that students will have more fun if they actually get to see the point where their models fail.
  • Weights
    • We will need to procure weights from the physics department to test the Knex models.


CRS Questions

Make sure to answer your own questions for us. So will these be A/B questions? Can support more options (multiple choice) if you want.

  • After an explanation of some of the concepts in the earlier lectures, have an image comparison of 2 bridges made in Bridgebuilder, ask students which of the two would be stronger.

Make 2 bridges as an example

  • Is this model static or dynamic?

Quiz Questions

  • Using the framework we've described in the past few weeks of static and dynamic models, explain how you might model a bridge. First define explain what aspect of the model is static. When the simulation begins, how does it become dynamic.
    • The static aspect of stuctural modeling plays out in the enviroment

<Structural Modeling> Metadata

This section contains information about the goals of the unit and the approaches taken to meet them.


This unit would be well suited for one week early in the semester. The basic concepts of bridge design are fairly straightforward.

Concepts, Techniques and Tools

The relevant discipline here is bridge building, and the skill set will include some basic physics.

General Education Alignment

  • Analytical Reasoning Requirement
    • Abstract Reasoning - From the [Catalog Description] Courses qualifying for credit in Abstract Reasoning typically share these characteristics:
      • They focus substantially on properties of classes of abstract models and operations that apply to them.
        • Sort of. This lab is more concrete. This unit will go early in the semester so it will apply some of the more abstract ideas presented earlier.
      • They provide experience in generalizing from specific instances to appropriate classes of abstract models.
        • Yes, because we're showing how structures and bridges, specifically apply to the abstract model parameters described in the What is a static model and what is a dynamic model units.
      • They provide experience in solving concrete problems by a process of abstraction and manipulation at the abstract level. Typically this experience is provided by word problems which require students to formalize real-world problems in abstract terms, to solve them with techniques that apply at that abstract level, and to convert the solutions back into concrete results.
        • Eh, again, this unit isn't geared towards this as far as I can see.
    • Quantitative Reasoning - From the [Catalog Description] General Education courses in Quantitative Reasoning foster students' abilities to generate, interpret and evaluate quantitative information. In particular, Quantitative Reasoning courses help students develop abilities in such areas as:
      • Using and interpreting formulas, graphs and tables.
        • not really. or maybe... If we use the pasco solution, the beam strength will be documented, and the students can perform basic calculations to figure out whether beams will break under a certain load.
      • Representing mathematical ideas symbolically, graphically, numerically and verbally.
        • The models provide a framework for visualizing physical (mathematical) constraints.
      • Using mathematical and statistical ideas to solve problems in a variety of contexts.
        • This is one context where we're using mathematical and statistical ideas.
      • Using simple models such as linear dependence, exponential growth or decay, or normal distribution.
        • Not really.
      • Understanding basic statistical ideas such as averages, variability and probability.
        • Yes, because the traversal (where we test the bridge by simulating a car driving over it) is a deterministic process. Maybe we could introduce the difference between probabilistic and deterministic.
      • Making estimates and checking the reasonableness of answers.
        • Yes, because students will try to build different types of bridges and determine the 'reasonableness' of their solutions by the simulated test outcome.
      • Recognizing the limitations of mathematical and statistical methods.
        • yes, because the physical model will not account for all variables, such as wind.
  • Scientific Inquiry Requirement - From the [Catalog Description] Scientific inquiry:
    • Develops students' understanding of the natural world.
      • Modeling physical structures is important because the natural world is comprised of physical structures.
    • Strengthens students' knowledge of the scientific way of knowing — the use of systematic observation and experimentation to develop theories and test hypotheses.
      • The students will determine the most appropriate method to build a simulated bridge through both lecture content and trial and error. They will test their models by building physical models of their virtual structures.
    • Emphasizes and provides first-hand experience with both theoretical analysis and the collection of empirical data.
      • The students collect the empirical data by synthesizing lecture content and trial and error. They (potentially in groups) will each devise different models to solve the same problem.

Scaffolded Learning

  • The scaffold pedagogy emphasizes the importance of introducing new ideas and concepts by explaining how those new concepts fit into the context of the material previously covered. Information is contextualized as pedagogical dependencies.
  • Our bridge unit is scaffolded in the sense that as students learn about the structural intricacies of bridge building, they will be able to construct more effective models. The high-level view of bridge types will allow the students to implement these qualities into the bridges they build in the simulator. Once the simulation is complete, the students will build a physical model under the expectations that the K'nex will behave as expected given the test results show by the computer program.

Inquiry Based Learning

Building Bridges and Breaking Knex is a fun, non-menacing way to explore the world of computational models. :)

<Structural Modeling> Mechanics

To Do

  • A list of items maintained by the authors, Charlie, and the Reviewers.


Can you play around with it yourselves and see how many you think are reasonable?

  • Where do the cameras come into this? Before and after they break would be neat...
  • Also need an estimate of how many K'Nex models we need and how much they cost. Ditto. The software we can keep, but if the K'nex is breaking every year then we should know what kind of course fee to tack on...

  • This is good material, and the bridge building effectively shows how the mining of data can be used to make models which then help the creation of new physical manifestations-- but I think this unit needs to narrow down on exactly what it wants to teach. Will this lab have "hard modes" for extra credit? A resolution of the unit's intent will make the lecture outline a lot more coherent. Ditto
    • Yes, there will be opportunities for further investigation during the lab period, including more in depth comparisons between the physical and computational models.
  • Also, the teacher/TAs will have to make sure they got this material under their belt when this lab rolls around, or, as you mentioned above, there will have to be some "reassuring," and we don't want the students to lose faith!

What size are you thinking? Is this from the prelab? How will they evaluate which is the most efficient bridge? Also, do we have any constraints? For instance, how far it's spanning? I'm thinking there should be at least a minimum span.

    • Ok...? What's the calculation? Confused. Seconded... more detail!
    • Do we have a way for them to save and bring in their demos from the Bridge Construction Sight?
    • We might be able to contact the developers at Chronic Logic to gain more insight about this. Excellent idea, maybe they even want to donate licenses for us. Mm, free stuff.

How did you decide on this particular software over the others? Just curious.


Bryan Purcell, purcebr@earlham.edu Dylan Parkhurst, dcpark06@earlham.edu