ASCE 2013 Bridge Bust Competition Teaches Hoosier High School Students Valuable Engineering Skills on a Global Scale

Everyone on the planet today is so close, so connected. There’s no doubt we all play in a “global sandbox.”

Civil engineers solve global infrastructure problems. Their solutions have an enormous impact that affects generations. What better way to teach aspiring engineers about the real-world application of engineering concepts than by telling high school students about my own passion for engineering?

I was fortunate to be invited as the featured guest speaker by Purdue University and the Student Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers to present my thoughts on civil engineering to more than 100 students from 13 different high schools across Indiana. These students were participating in the 34th Annual ASCE Bridge Bust Competition, held on March 1 at the Armory on the Purdue University Campus in West Lafayette, Indiana.

I not only gave the students a pep talk for the balsa wood bridge building competition, but I encouraged them to consider engineering as a career path. Engineers are decision makers with unique problem-solving abilities and are grounded in a strong math and science background. We are creative thinkers who can use our analytical skills to develop amazing solutions. We are natural leaders who work well in teams and possess a strong work ethic. You put all this in a bowl and stir it up, and you get vision! And it takes vision to solve the world’s infrastructure problems on a global scale.

The Sky’s the Limit

Replicating the world’s infrastructure problems on a smaller scale, the Bridge Bust Competition gave students the opportunity to use balsa wood and glue to design and construct a “bridge” that was aesthetically pleasing, demonstrated sound structural concepts, and maximized the ratio of the load capacity to the bridge mass. They used advanced math, science, physics, and technology skills to solve their first civil engineering “problem,” similar to the bridge engineers working at American Structurepoint. Bridges were judged in two categories—structural strength and aesthetic qualities.

The valuable lessons students learned from the competition included how to:

  • Arrange the members and connections in a bridge for efficiency, strength and constructability to carry a load;
  • Select durable, renewable materials;
  • Meet all the geometric constraints of size, including width, length, and height;
  • Satisfy aesthetic standards;
  • Deliver the bridge project on time and ready for use; and
  • Build a bridge at a reasonable cost.

By using their best judgment and “hidden” engineering skills, the students successfully solved the bridge problem just like engineers did 150 years ago, and in many ways, like our engineers do today, using the same principals.

In the real world, their efficient designs would translate into saving time and money for a client. A successful bridge project would not only help connect two roads, bringing towns and people closer together, but it may also spur economic development and job growth. I personally believe these types of achievements by civil engineers on a global scale will help drive the world economy in a more positive direction.

Students from the Plymouth Community School Corporation won first and second place for structural strength, while students from Northwestern and Paxton won first and second place, respectively, for aesthetics. Coming in third for structural strength was Greenwood, and in third for aesthetics was Centerville. The first place team in each category was awarded a $100 cash scholarship. The second place team in each category was awarded a $50 cash scholarship. The third place team in each category was awarded Purdue University apparel.

After congratulating the winning students, I encouraged all the participants of the Bridge Bust Competition to major in engineering, because with an engineering education, the opportunities are endless. The sky’s the limit!