Smashing Bridges to Build Them

The metaphor of building bridges is often used to note a rite of passage or a step toward the future. But while many schools at this time of year are focused on building metaphorical bridges for their students, like helping them transition to high school, students at City Polytechnic High School of Engineering, Architecture, and Technology in Brooklyn were doing the opposite this week.

They were breaking bridges.

For three days each summer, City Polytech conducts an orientation program for incoming ninth graders. Besides learning school routines and rules, the students are asked to design bridges — and then weigh them down, in a test of the bridges’ strength.

With minimal materials (Popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue), the students build the strongest bridges they can. On the second day of orientation, they bring the bridges down, by stacking geometry textbooks on them until they collapse.

On Tuesday morning the school’s new class of 116 ninth graders, mostly boys, gathered in an upstairs classroom, along with teachers and older students, for the competition to see which bridge withstood the most weight. The schools chancellor, Dennis Walcott, was there to observe and to announce the winners.

“It’s the idea of actually applying what you’re going to learn,” said Chris Aguirre, 45, the principal, who is also a founder of City Polytech, a small school in the MetroTech Center in Downtown Brooklyn that opened in 2009. “One of the first things we want to introduce to students is the idea of technology, and that doesn’t have to mean applied technology or computers. It can be as simple as a lever.”

Or a few Popsicle sticks.

At one end of the room was a projector displaying a spreadsheet with the names of each team, the small groups in which the students had built their bridges over two days. At the other end was a whiteboard listing numbers of textbooks and the corresponding weights.

And at the center of the room, a bridge sat across two desks, its builders ready to burden it down at the direction of Anthony Cioffi, 54, a professor at the nearby New York City College of Technology, which has a partnership with City Polytech to offer advanced courses.

“One, two, three …” Professor Cioffi counted slowly as a pile of textbooks formed on the bridge. “Four, five, six …,” he went on, and then continued as the tower grew.

“Twelve!” he shouted, raising his arms like a referee as the first bridge crumbled. The crowd gathered around the desks jumped back and the broken Popsicle sticks scattered on the floor.

The winning bridge, built by the team Building Fanatics, held 26 books, or roughly 114 pounds.

But even students whose bridges crumbled under far less weight seemed to enjoy the contest and the opportunity to get to know their new classmates.

“We didn’t use enough glue on the right side,” said Donnell Stewart, 13. His team’s bridge held 14 books. “It was a lot of fun, though, working with my teammates. We helped each other, and it made our ideas better.”

The teachers, too, were able to meet their new students and get a sense of how the year ahead might play out.

“It’s a snapshot or taste of high school here,” said Nancy Lev, 50, an English teacher who has taught for 18 years in New York City schools and started at City Polytech last year. “It’s what you can look forward to. Here are your classmates.”

The orientation is not all fun and bridge breaking, though. On Wednesday, students returned for math and writing assessment exams and to hear their principal explain his expectations.

Mr. Aguirre said that bringing students in over the summer made the return to school easier for everyone, including him. More high schools could benefit from connecting with their freshmen before school starts, he said.

“It makes all the difference in the world,” he said. “Kids are on time, they’ve already met people and made friends, and they know the expectations.”

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