Source: PEEP and the Big Wide World
Water is notoriously hard to control. Driven by gravity or pressure it can squirt through the smallest opening, and in large volumes it carries incredible destructive potential. As a result, dams built to stop or divert the flow of water must be both impermeable to water and able to resist great force. In this video segment from PEEP and the Big Wide World, children experiment with various materials and designs to see if they can create a dam that meets the challenges of their specific circumstances.
Humans have been altering the environment to suit their needs for thousands of years. One significant type of alteration is the building of dams to stop or divert the flow of streams and rivers. We build dams to prevent downstream flooding, to create reliable sources of drinking and irrigation water, to generate power, and to provide recreational opportunities such as boating and fishing.
Humans are not the only animals to alter their environment by building dams. Beavers are master dam builders and because of their innate ability to create these highly effective structures, are sometimes referred to as nature's first engineers. Unlike humans, who must be taught or learn through trial and error how to design and build dams, beavers know instinctively how to interweave sticks to create a strong and durable structure, as well as how to seal a dam with mud to make it impermeable to water. Their lives depend on it. The ponds created by beaver dams provide refuge from predators as well as underwater access to food throughout the winter.
Beavers construct their dams using relatively simple techniques along with materials readily available in their environment. These techniques and materials are adequate for a dam created to hold back a small pond, especially if the builder is willing and able — as beavers are — to work constantly to maintain the dam. In contrast, constructing a dam capable of withstanding the force of millions of gallons of water requires more advanced materials and careful planning. Materials such as concrete and steel are highly resistant to forces that squeeze and stretch. They also can be shaped to fit a particular set of circumstances.
Determining what form a large dam will take and how it will be constructed requires careful planning. Engineers often use scale models and detailed drawings and calculations to help them determine which design and materials will work best for a dam in a particular situation. By doing so, they avoid large-scale experiments with various designs and materials, an approach that would be both costly and potentially dangerous.
The children featured in this video segment follow many of the steps engineers use to solve problems on a larger scale. To begin, they identify a problem: how to stop the flow of water in order to create pools they can play in. Next, they take stock of the materials they have available to help them solve this problem. They also consider what they know about how various types of dams — including beaver dams — are made, and they incorporate some of these ideas into their dam designs. Lastly, the children test their design to see how it works and then make modifications based on the test results. By following these important engineering principles, the children are able to accomplish their objective.
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