Science Is Cool: Ransom Students Take The Straw Structure Challenge

September 24, 2018

Last week, science students at Ransom Middle School took part in the Straw Structure Challenge – build a freestanding structure at least 30 centimeters (about a foot) tall made only of straws and paper clips to support as many common nails as possible.

The strongest straw structure supported 122 nails — about two pounds.

For more photos, click here.

Ransom science teacher Louis O’Rear explains the Straw Structure Challenge. and in he explains why “Science Is Cool”, in his own words:

These days my Straw Structure Challenge project would be labeled a STEM project.  Education is all about combining and applying skills and subjects.  This is a perfect example of project-based learning that combines science, technology, engineering, and math.  It’s a beautiful thing when we can pull multiple subjects together, and let the students actually design, create, and build something with their own hands. Although I encourage them to do research on their own time, this is about getting back to the basics of using their hands, their imaginations, and a few basic tools to create something out of nothing. This is my 26th year in the classroom, and there is a definite trend in the students’ abilities (or the decline of their abilities) to create something from scratch, using their hands.  The bulk of these kids don’t play outside and “do things” as we did.  But they are slowly discovering my motto… If the hands do it, the mind will not forget it.

Kids today are excellent at tapping the screen of their phones with their two thumbs.  I challenge anyone to out-text these kids today.  When I was a kid it was an insult to tell someone they were all thumbs, but that is what so many of our kids are slowly becoming. It helps that so many of our Ransom parents know how important it is to limit their child’s screen time.   Each student has a Chromebook laptop provided by the school district, and most have a smartphone.  They are surrounded by technology, and they know how to utilize it, but that is just the “T” in STEM.  It is important for them to experience other aspects of this project, of science in general, and not just read about it, or see videos about it.

My goal is for them to glean some important information from this hands-on project.  FIRST: When constructing with straight members (straws, or toothpicks, or popsicle sticks, or two by fours in their attic at home, or giant iron bridge girders, or sections of the cell phone tower in their neighborhood), the triangle is their best friend. Barring the ability to build an arch shape, like the top of an egg, the triangle is the strongest shape they can use for building. SECOND: the way to accomplish this is to design a structure while taking into consideration the forces of compression and tensionTHIRD: I give a few bonus points for the group with the best ratio of nails to straws. Having already thoroughly learned about ratios from our math teachers at here at Ransom, it’s easy to teach them how to apply ratios to real situations.

This is our first group project of the year in science, and being able to work with others is paramount. With so much screen time in their lives, some of the students struggle with true “FaceTime”…communicating with others in person. As teachers, we talk to each other a lot about this issue and what we can do about it.  We can’t do much about the phones and other screens in their lives, but we can help them learn how to communicate better and more effectively in person. It helps tremendously that we have a very strong group of teachers in our Language Arts department who incorporate good communication skills in their classrooms.

As much as we try to incorporate some technology (where appropriate) in our teaching, technology isn’t always the solution, just as much as technology isn’t always the problem. It helps to remember that some kids are just innately quiet and shy, this having nothing to do with today’s ubiquitous connected devices.  So, as educators, we are constantly seeking a good balance, for all of our students.

Our administration here at Ransom is all about making students the priority.  In doing that, they support us, the teachers, because we are the forces on the ground making it possible.  We all agree, administrators and teachers alike, that the students are why we are here.  And they are why our main school improvement goal is, of course, increasing academic achievement in all content areas.

There is a saying:  “If the kids are not learning the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” Sometimes this rings true.  One way is to teach them, and then have them apply what they have learned through project-based learning. Hence, the Straw Structure Challenge.  And because they are learning with their hands, the knowledge is much more likely to stick. We all have a great time!  After all, this is science, the best subject of all, right? What better place to build cool STEM projects than in science! #ScienceIsCool


4 Responses to “Science Is Cool: Ransom Students Take The Straw Structure Challenge”

  1. Charlie on September 25th, 2018 8:31 am

    This is great to see. When students understand the Why and the How they can use what they are learning there is purpose for the work. Mr. O is an enthusiastic educator that teaches quality of character and virtues, and he throws in some science sometimes :) Thanks Mr. O, I sure enjoyed your class about 15 years ago, I imagine it has only gotten better since.

  2. Bonnie Exner on September 24th, 2018 7:26 pm


  3. anne 1of2 on September 24th, 2018 10:18 am

    A much better use for the straws too. I hope the kids stick with these projects because we need them for improvements to our planet. Science has to grab their attention and keep it while they are young. I was in the science is too hard group, bored to death. Just plain lazy.

  4. Raymond Gambill on September 24th, 2018 9:38 am

    I taught with Mr. O’Rear for 22 years, if there is a better teacher in Escambia County I would be shocked!
    Actually I am not sure that the teaching profession has produced a better teacher than Mr. O’Rwar!!

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