JHS students, teachers test engineering skills; Paper structure holds 1,615 pounds

Photo by Rebecca Long

Photo by Rebecca Long

By Diane Glidewell


Teachers want to hold the attention of their students. They want to make students eager to learn. They know that one way to do that is to tie the concepts studied in class to real-world applications.

Lynn Patrick-Watson, now the math coach at Jackson High School, has required various three-dimensional projects from her honors geometry students for many years. One project involves creating a structure, using 25 standard manilla file folders and glue, which will hold several hundred pounds of weight.

The students divide into groups of three or four and compete with one another to create the structure that will hold the most weight. The key to success is to research the influence of shapes and the arrangement of shapes on weight-bearing capacity and then use the research, and some trial and error, to create the strongest prototype.

This past semester, when five Georgia High School Graduation Test review classes had taken the tests for which they were preparing and still had time left in the semester, Patrick-Watson suggested the students complete the structure-strength project. To make it more interesting and to increase the competition, she also suggested the teachers create their own structures and compete. They accepted her challenge.

The structures were tested in the JHS weight room on Wednesday, May 12. Weights were lowered onto the paper structures until they were crushed. Among the 17 student groups, the average weight held was 318 pounds. The winning student structure held 845 pounds. But the highlight of the project was the success of two teacher structures.

Jimmy Martin created a structure with a honeycomb shape which held 1,030 pounds before it collapsed. He took second place to the 1,615 pounds held by Melissa Hancock's structure. The previous JHS school record, set by students in August 2003, was 1,320 pounds.

The latest national record located by Patrick-Watson was 1,657 pounds.

To test Hancock's structure required all four available 100-pound weights plus 27 45-pound weights. Her structure utilized a circular, doughnut-shaped base with a hole in the middle and triangles arranged with their points touching in small circles creating a honeycomb image within the doughnut. Hancock had never built a weight-bearing structure with these specifications before, but she did bring an engineering background to the task, having earned an engineering degree and then having worked in the field for several years before beginning her teaching career.

"We want the kids to have real-world experience with math," said Patrick-Watson. "Ms. Hancock brings in knowledge from the engineering world."

The students learned that it is necessary to take into account shifting and balance, as well as strength, in the test. They learned that a taller structure might be strong, but it posed more balance problems. The observations led to research on natural disasters and skyscrapers.

"The student group that worked the hardest on its structure produced the structure that held the least weight," said Patrick-Watson. "They went more on intuition. They learned that research pays off."

The project required research into tension, compression, and equilibrium. Martin knew from research that the triangle is probably the strongest shape, but he had to work to incorporate triangles into his structure, which looked much like a bee's honeycomb. The other teachers who completed the project were Katie Stewart and Kristina Hirsch. Michael Eakin's GHSGT review class also participated in the project. The teachers were asked to think about how the project relates to the state's new math standards as they worked with the students and worked on their own projects.

The student group whose structure held the most weight included Chris Jordon, Ashley Campbell, Danielle Wood and Sharodney Miller.