Structural Engineering Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Suzanne Rose

Suzanne has taught all levels PK-graduate school and has a PhD in Instructional Systems Design. She currently teachers literacy courses to preservice and inservice teachers.

In this lesson, you'll learn what structural engineering is and how it impacts your life every day. Read on to find out what a structure is and some ways that structural engineers make structures stronger.

Roads, Airports and Bridges

Look around. Without a structural engineer, most of what you see around you probably wouldn't be there! A structural engineer is someone who uses math and science to invent, design, build, and care for structures, such as houses, roads, bridges, dams, and airports.

What's a Structure?

Think about some structures around you. What do they have in common? All structures must be designed by engineers so that they can bear, or hold up, a particular load.

For example, a bridge has to be able to hold the weight of the people, cars, and trucks that will cross over it every day. If it can't bear that load, it will collapse. Structural engineers study the load that each structure must bear and figure out how to design a structure that can withstand that load.

Structures also have forces that are acting on them all the time. Gravity is one force that acts on everything on Earth. Wind blowing against the side of a building or a bridge would be another example of a force. Forces always seem to be trying to knock structures down!

Arches help structures bear loads.

Structural engineers use math and science to make sure that forces won't damage the structure. They figure out ways to make the structure bend under the forces so that they aren't damaged. When the forces are gone, the structure is made so it can go back to its original shape.

You might think that only large structures, such as skyscrapers, bridges, or dams would need to be studied closely, but that's not true. Small structures, such as the chairs, tables, or bookshelves, are also designed by structural engineers to make sure that they can stand up under the load that they are supposed to hold. Without structural engineers, you might sit on a chair and end up on the floor!

Columns, Beams and Trusses

One thing that structural engineers think about is how to make structures that are strong. They need to think carefully about what a structure will be made out of. The materials have to be able to bear the load, but they also need to be able to 'give,' or bend, so that they can go back to their original shape when the load is removed. Often, we can't see this bending as it happens. You wouldn't want to drive over a bridge if you could see it bending under its load, would you?

Columns and beams work together to make structures stronger.

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