A “Bridge Building” reflection through a LfU lens

Using the LfU literature as a lens, I reflected on the “Back Country Bridge” project that my STEM 11/12 class did this past September.  At the time, I had never heard of Learning For Use as a design theory.  This is what we presented to the students on the first day:

“Research, design, and construct the lightest possible wood-frame bridge that will safely allow a 100 kg person to cross a 4.0 m crevasse.”

Students worked collaboratively in groups of three.  Evaluations were set as 50% for the final bridge performance, 25% for written tests, and 25% for shop procedures. There was some direct instruction on how to shape and fasten wooden members, how to analyze forces, and how to test for strength.  We assigned homework problem sets with relevant math and physics, and set a “prototype” testing day at the 2.5 week mark to keep the students from procrastinating.  The entire project was 4.5 weeks long.

In retrospect, here is how I think we faired relative to my paraphrasing of the four LfU tenets of design found in Edelson (2000, p. 375):

1.   Learning takes place through construction and modification of knowledge structures.

This is later defined as constructivism, and I think we are following a constructivist model of learning. We are quite purposeful in our attempt to ensure that projects end with the creation of an artifact, be that physical or digital.  The students really got into building and testing the bridges, so that seemed like a success.

2.  Learning can only be initiated by the learner, whether it is through conscious goal-setting or as a natural, unconscious result of experience.

I feel that this is really about authentic engagement.  Later in the paper, it clarifies:

“…although a teacher can create a demand for knowledge by creating an exam that requires students to recite a certain body of knowledge, that would not constitute a natural use of the knowledge for the purposes of creating an intrinsic motivation to learn”  (Edelson, 2000, p.375)

I like that he emphasizes that “academic threats” or extrinsic motivation are not authentic engagement.  I think we failed here in our bridge project.  Although many of the students got into the building and testing, we spent zero time considering if this project was relevant to students or how they experience their environment.  I chose the project because I do back-country travel, and I like bridges.  In other words, it was relevant to me.  In future, I would like to be more considered in our choice of projects, or find some way to involve students in the selection process.

3.  Knowledge is retrieved based on contextual cues, or “indices”.

This is called situated learning elsewhere in the literature (NLG, 1996).  For those of you who teach physics and mathematics, you’ll know that the analysis of bridge structures is about as situated as trigonometry and “static equilibrium” can get.  We did test to see if students could recognize contextual cues and transfer this knowledge to similar structures, like bicycle frames and chairs.  The results were so-so, and we discussed that as colleagues.  Perhaps we need to include more transfer exercises or reflections that ask students to place bridge analysis in a larger context, something Garcia & Morrell (2013) call “Guided Reflexivity”, and Gee (2007) calls “Critical Learning”.   We didn’t do much in the way of meta-cognition at that point in the year.

4.  To apply declarative knowledge, an individual must have procedural knowledge.

I had trouble with this tenet.  Isn’t this isn’t just a repeat of principle 1?  Since our students are working in groups in a constructivist model, the development of common vocabulary and declarative knowledge is fully necessary to communicate, or the project doesn’t move forward (which sometimes happens and requires intervention).  The act of design and successful iteration is the application of “procedural knowledge”, which has declarative knowledge embedded.  Maybe I’m missing something here.

Overall, I feel like LfU is just a merger of constructivism and basic cognitive learning theories.  My school’s program and projects would benefit a lot by being more purposeful about authentic engagement and helping students see their project as part of a larger domain of related problems.

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

Garcia, A. & Morrell, E. (2013). City Youth and the Pedagogy of Participatory Media. Learning, Media and Technology 38(2). 123-127. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2013.782040

Gee, J. 2007. Semiotic Domains: Is playing video games a “waste of time?” In What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy (pp.17-45). New York: Palgrave and Macmillian.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review. 66(1), 60-92.


  1. Thanks for the post Michael. I don’t think you failed with the bridge project being only personally relevant to you, since we as educators need to provide a framework for students to inquire within. In a pure discovery setting, learners end up feeling overwhelmed, cannot determine what is important, unlikely to achieve intended outcomes. Also extending conversations from STEM videos in Module A, static equilibrium discussed in isolation is different from discussed in context. In Physics, we will simplify unnecessary details to focus on examining dynamics, whereas Engineers need to factor in considerations of design, material, etc. Much more challenging a problem, but also much more satisfying a solution. Keep it up!


    1. Hey Andrew,

      Thanks for the comment. I go into next year with a plan to fail again as far as project choices go, because this year end was so truncated! Our STEM staff is growing, so there is some complication in the project selection process and bringing new members on board. I recognize that I have a duty to guide choices, and that instructors need to be interested and knowledgeable about the projects. I’m just looking to also incorporate feedback from students about what interests them. This is explicit (I collect year end feedback) and implicit (checking out what projects they really get into, as well as what projects they choose for themselves).

      1. Hey Andrew, I definitely don’t think you “failed” by choosing to build bridges because of your interest. I always find that when we explain our interests to students, it often elicits curiosity in them as learners, wanting to build and make connections. I often let STEM challenges happen organically. For example, in our S.S. unit we built many communities. One “I wonder” thought that came up was, “how do people travel from one city to another?” From this, we were able to learn about bridges and then use design thinking to construct our own bridges. It was a great example of LFU and Constructivism. I also like your comment about getting students feedback and suggestions. Students are empowered when they have choice and can contribute their ideas in the design of classroom activities.

        1. Thanks for the comments, Danielle. As I mentioned to Andrew, we are likely to make a best guess on projects as instructors and then just go for it. The timing of the school year doesn’t really allow for anything else. The stakes are higher this year b/c my own kid will be in my class to find out how boring his old man really is!

          We’ve been collecting feedback from kids once per term for the last 3 years. This works out to around 500 feedback forms by now, which are major factors in our programming decisions. The students are very thoughtful and there are always a few ideas that are just GOLD.

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