How to Make a Paper Bridge

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  • 0:05 Introduction to the Experiment
  • 1:40 Materials of the Experiment
  • 1:56 Steps of the Experiment
  • 3:11 How It Works
  • 3:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this project, you'll be designing a paper bridge. Here, you'll learn how different structures distribute forces that could cause a bridge to collapse and gain a better understanding of how real bridges are constructed.

Introduction to the Experiment

Let's first cover the main information about this experiment before we get into the finer details of what we're doing.

Goal: Construct different paper bridges to test their strength
Age: Middle school and up
Safety concerns: None
Time: 1 hour

Bridges are an amazing feat of engineering. Although some of the most basic bridges are made of only a couple of logs and span only a few feet across a creek, the Danyang-Kushan Grand Bridge in China stretches 102 miles! All bridges have some basic characteristics in common. First, there are two main forces that act on bridges: compression and tension. Compression is the force that pushes the bridge down in the middle. Tension is a force acting in the opposite direction, and, in this case, it wants to pull the bridge to either side on which it is anchored.

The structure of bridges balances these forces so that the bridge does not collapse from too much compression or tear apart from too much tension. Suspension bridges use cables, truss bridges use triangles, and although simple, beam bridges are only enforced by pillars underneath them. Arch bridges are one of the oldest types of bridges and use blocks arranged in a circular shape to distribute force.

Today, you're going to try to build your own bridge with only paper. There are many variations of this project, but today, we'll challenge you to use only four pieces of paper and six inches of tape per trial. You can change this by using more or less paper and tape to challenge yourself.

In this project, you'll be building three bridges total and comparing how much weight they can hold. Before you start, think about some successful bridges. What did they look like? How were they constructed to balance tension and compression?

Materials of the Experiment

All right, let's now quickly cover the important materials you'll need for this experiment:

  • 12 sheets of plain white computer paper
  • 100 pennies
  • 18'' of masking tape
  • Scissors

You'll also need to write out the data table appearing here on your screen:

Description of Bridge Pennies Held

Steps of the Experiment

  1. Find a place with a gap you can suspend the bridges over. Two chairs about 6'' apart work well.
  2. Now it's time to construct your first bridge. Try to use only four sheets of paper and less than 6'' of tape. You can keep your paper straight, fold it, pleat it, roll it, cut it, or anything else you can come up with.
  3. Place your bridge over the gap with about 1'' of paper on either chair.
  4. Now it's time to test the bridge. Start in the center of the bridge and add one penny. Keep adding pennies to the bridge until it collapses. You can also try to add pennies on different spots on the bridge. Does it matter if all the weight is in the center versus evenly distributed?

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