Save the boxes! – Bridge building with LfU

Imagine how LfU principles might be applied to a topic you teach. Now switch out the My World technology. What other domain specific (and non-domain specific) software might help you achieve these principles while teaching this topic? By domain-specific, we mean software designed for STEM education, and by non-domain specific, we mean software or other forms of technology that could be used generally in multiple domains (eg. Wikis). Other GIS software can be selected for the switch.


Traditional images of education usually involve a teacher lecturing in front of a group of students, didactically transmitting knowledge to students.  There are also images of students in labs or activities, taking their learned content and engaging in activities that more often than not are designed primarily to confirm and reinforce said content.  This view that the teaching of content and engaging in process are opposed to each other is challenged by Edelson’s Learning for Use (LfU) theory (2001) which contends that inquiry can be means to help students understand content.  Edelson’s LfU is based on 4 main principles:

  1. Learning occurs through constructivist methods.
  2. Construction of knowledge is a goal-driven process that is guided by an understanding of the reasoning behind the goals.
  3. The constructed knowledge is used as a foundation for building subsequent knowledge.
  4. Knowledge must be constructed in a meaningful and useful way before it can be applied.

In doing do, Edelson argues, inquiry-based activities can be used as a means to both deliver content and reinforce concepts.  LfU theory also outlines how these learning processes should be designed and highlights three important areas of consideration: motivation, construction of knowledge, and refinement of knowledge (Edelson, 2001).  In this process, motivation first helps students recognize the need for more knowledge and serves to drive their engagement in the activity.  The construction of knowledge occurs when students develop an understanding and then use it as a basis for further knowledge construction.  Finally, the refinement of knowledge allows students to connect and reinforce learned ideas in order to make them useful.

One topic that I have taught that fits neatly with LfU theory is the bridge building unit in my Science & Tech 11 course.  The overall theme of the unit is to understand the shapes and structures commonly used in bridge building and culminates in a popsicle stick bridge building challenge.  To aid student understanding of basic bridge structures (namely, trusses), a domain specific bridge building simulator can be used to allow students to test and verify their ideas.

Reading Edelson’s description of the LfU process, I realised that my unit plan could be separated into the three stages discussed above.  With Edelson’s LfU process applied, the unit progressed as follows:

Stage 1: Motivation

  • The unit starts with showing students various bridges from the around the world with a discussion regarding how the different architectural and engineer designs set out to solve some problem.  The students are provided with some materials and challenged, as a class, to build a suspension bridge to see how much weight can be supported.
  • In the classes following the introduction, a discussion on structural shapes and force distribution is followed by taking the students to the computer lab where they can begin using the bridge simulator.  The cartoon-y design and gamified approach the simulator has helps to motivate and engage students.

Stage 2: Construction of knowledge

  • The students are asked to draw a diagram of every successfully bridge they design as they progress through the game.
  • The students are given two classes to advance as fair as possible through the game.  At the beginning of the second class, students are asked to share their successful bridge designs and the teacher asks guiding questions that eventually lead to the highlighting of triangular truss structures and their role in supporting bridge forces.
  • The students can use this knowledge and more actively think about their bridge design as the game becomes more difficult.

Stage 3: Refinement

  • The students continue to use their understanding to build more complicated bridge designs.
  • Once complete, the students are given their final project – a bridge built of popsicle sticks.
  • They are tasked with first sketching and planning their project using the knowledge gained from the simulator, and then proceed with the build and test.

Edelson’s LfU theory and process provides a rather pragmatic approach to unit design that not only allows for the tighter integration of content and process, but also offers a measured approach to its implementation in the classroom.




Edelson, D.C. (2001). Learning-for-use: A framework for the design of technology-supported inquiry activities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(3), 355-385.


  1. This sounds like such an interesting and relevant activity. Bridges are structures that are found all around the world and their are some beautifully constructed ones. I totally agree that Edelson’s Learning for Use Theory and process provides a rather pragmatic approach to unit design that can be easily assessed in the classroom and keeps students motivated while building on their prior knowledge.

  2. Lawrence,

    I want to focus in on your Motivation process used in your Bridge Building assignment. When working through Edelson’s (2001) writing this past week, the Motivation process stood out to me as one of the areas that I tend to neglect in my own teaching, moving straight into knowledge construction! One of the key aspects in the Motivation process is for students to run into the limit of their own knowledge. You have accomplished this through instructing students in designing their own suspension bridge and seeing how much weight it can hold. Asking the simple question, “What could be done in the bridge’s structure to increase it’s ability to hold more weight?” leads directly to further investigation through the bridge simulator. In regards to students discovering the limits of their own knowledge, I appreciate this quotation from p.358: “The knowledge structures that are activated at the point that a learner recognizes the limits of his or her understanding provide the connection points for new knowledge” (Edelson, 2001). This leads to motivation, preparing the student for engaged learning.

  3. Hi Lawrence,

    Your post on the bridge building activity is a great reminder that any well thought-out lesson or unit can motivate any student, regardless of their specific interest in the course, to excel in science. Personally, having taught students that are less encouraged or not as efficient in the sciences, problem solving and inquiry based projects such as the bridge building activity really help inspire students without necessarily focusing directly on the ‘science’ material. The challenge or problem itself encourages students to learn from a different perspective and not through more traditional methods.

    Thanks for the post!

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