Scouting around for activities with the STARportal

How do you build a bridge strong enough to support a potato using skewers, straws and sticky tape?

Children at Canberra-based Scout group 13th Canberra were asked this question recently as part of their activities celebrating National Science Week which included a visit from Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel.

Drawing on the resources of the STARportal – a website listing STEM activities all over Australia – the Scout cubs were challenged to solve this problem: a “potato scout” was on one side of a deep river and needed to join the scout troop on the other side. Could the cubs build a bridge to solve this problem using these limited resources? Could the potato get from one side of the river to the other? Dr Finkel provided expert engineering advice to the cubs, explaining the importance of structural integrity, weight distribution and limiting waste of materials for the task, among other things.


Dr Finkel encouraged the cubs to keep engaged in science and praised the Scout movement as one of the many community groups that is offering an opportunity for young people to explore STEM outside of the school context. “It’s important to understand that science activities are not just academic activities. It’s a part of our lives, part of our environment. You don’t see it, unless someone is presenting it to you – especially if you are young. If they do these as activities out of the classroom too, then children realise the universe is replete with science, mathematics and engineering.”

He also emphasised that context was important in sparking curiosity. “An activity such as this bridge building task may seem simple. But the next time one of these cubs sees a bridge, I would like to think they would be thinking about its structure, the materials of which it’s made, and how it’s being held up.”

“As a child, I was so curious. I loved anything to do with the human body. I loved electronics and science, and it was so exciting growing up with exploration of space and breaking down the barriers to space, and the exact equivalent in the deep ocean.”

“If I was a child today, I’d be excited about the electric cars – the hydrogen powered cars, the autonomous cars – the possibility of robot drones and helicopters. Technology excites kids. Once they get excited about that, they then think: when I grow up, what would I have to know to develop that, so then I need to understand maths and science to build the next generation of technology,” Dr Finkel said.

Scout leader “Baloo” found the engineering challenge activity on the STARportal – a resource listing STEM activities all over Australia. It connects providers of science, technology, engineering and maths activities with parents, teachers and children in a “one stop shop”. These activities can be delivered autonomously, such as the bridge building challenge, or they can be programs that children can attend (i.e. an afterschool activity at a museum), or programs that come to school classrooms. Providers are encouraged to load information about their programs or activities to the website and maintain the content.

And what of our lonely potato scout? You’ll be delighted to know the bridge building was so successful that the potato scout safely made the journey to the other side to join the group.

Canberra ABC 666 roving reporter Ms Lish Fejer was also on the scene to record the historic bridge building activity.