Curricular Unit: Bridges

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Two photos: (left) View driving on a highway with three crossing viaducts visible above the roadway. (right) A barge floats under the cables and deck of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA.
Bridges, an engineering marvel, connect people to resources, places and other people
Copyright © (left) 2007 Denise W. Carlson. Used with permission. (right) 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.


Through a five-lesson series that includes numerous hands-on activities, students are introduced to the importance and pervasiveness of bridges for connecting people to resources, places and other people, with references to many historical and current-day examples. In learning about bridge types—arch, beam, truss and suspension—students explore the effect of tensile and compressive forces. Students investigate the calculations that go into designing bridges; they learn about loads and cross-sectional areas by designing and testing the strength of model piers. Geology and soils are explored as they discover the importance of foundations, bearing pressure and settlement considerations in the creation of dependable bridges and structures. Students learn about brittle and ductile material properties. Students also learn about the many cost factors that comprise the economic considerations of bridge building. Bridges are unique challenges that take advantage of the creative nature of engineering.

Engineering Connection

Engineers are involved in many aspects of weather forecasting and weather-appropriate design. They analyze information about weather when designing instruments such as barometers, thermometers and anemometers—technologies that are essential for accurate weather predictions so that we can make informed decisions about how we interact with our world. Also, computer science engineers develop software to integrate these complex weather information technologies for meteorologists to use to make such predictions and inform the public. Engineers develop websites (and software) to present predicted and historical weather information in the most informative and pleasing way for people to understand. Civil engineers utilize weather data when designing bridges, houses and other structures, to ensure that those designs are appropriate for the climate of their locations. Environmental engineers analyze weather measurements to determine the placement and effectiveness of renewable energy technologies, such as wind farms and solar arrays. Engineers also serve an important role in designing products that enable people to more comfortably adjust to the weather (for example, waterproof jackets, heated driveways and sunscreen, and many other weather-resistant goods).

More Curriculum Like This

A Good Foundation

Students explore the effects of regional geology on bridge foundation, including the variety of soil conditions found beneath foundations. They learn about shallow and deep foundations, as well as the concepts of bearing pressure and settlement.

Middle School Lesson
Shallow & Deep Foundations

Using models representing a shallow foundation and a deep pile foundation, they test, see and feel the effects in a cardboard box test bed composed of layers of pebbles, soil and sand. They also make bearing pressure calculations and recommendations for which type of foundations to use in various en...

Middle School Activity
Bridging the Gaps

Students are presented with a brief history of bridges as they learn about the three main bridge types: beam, arch and suspension. They are introduced to two natural forces — tension and compression — common to all bridges and structures. Throughout history, and today, bridges are important for conn...

Middle School Lesson
Designing Bridges

Students learn about the types of possible loads, how to calculate ultimate load combinations, and investigate the different sizes for the beams (girders) and columns (piers) of simple bridge design. Additionally, they learn the steps that engineers use to design bridges.

Middle School Lesson

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Fluently add, subtract, multiply, and divide multi-digit decimals using the standard algorithm for each operation. (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, volume and surface area of two- and three-dimensional objects composed of triangles, quadrilaterals, polygons, cubes, and right prisms. (Grade 7) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Predict and evaluate the movement of an object by examining the forces applied to it (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Identify and calculate the direction and magnitude of forces that act on an object, and explain the results in the object's change of motion (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Unit Overview

Overview of topics, by lesson: 1) bridge types, tension and compression forces; 2) design, loads, piers/columns and girders/beams; 3) geology, foundations, bearing pressure and settlement; 4) strength of materials; and 5) economics, estimates, costs.

Unit Schedule

Other Related Information

For an amazing bridge image and a story about an incredible US bridge project, see the July 4, 2009 Daily Mail story, "The Wider View: Taking Shape, the New Bridge at the Hoover Dam," on the 2010 Hoover Dam bypass bridge (called the "Colorado River Bridge") at

For an interesting time lapse of construction photos of the 10-year creation process of the 2010 Hoover Dam bypass bridge, see


See individual lessons and activities.


© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


This digital library content was developed by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program in the College of Engineering and Applied Science under National Science Foundation grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: April 26, 2017