Demolishing bridges to create engineers © March 7, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications

Popsicle bridge ready for testing.

original photo by Akhan Almagambetov
photo illustration by Eric Hobart
Popsicle bridge ready for testing.

The Norwich campus was home to some serious demolition in February. Although all of the structures on campus are still standing, high school teams from throughout Vermont successfully flattened bridges in the science building as part of Norwich University’s 14th annual Popsicle Bridge Building Competition, sponsored by the David Crawford School of Engineering on February 23.

“The idea is to get local high school students interested in civil engineering by giving them a project,” said William Barry, who teaches civil engineering at Norwich. This year’s showing indicated the plan is working. The University hosted 35 teams, the most ever.

The Norwich student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which organizes the event, invited all Vermont high schools in November. “This year, 15 Norwich students helped put on the event,” said Alicia Morgan, senior civil engineering major, adding that it was the first time most of them had participated. Overseeing the event was good practice for the Norwich students, who plan to participate in a university-level competition in Montreal in fall 2008. “[They] are getting to see what is working for the high school teams and what isn’t,” Barry said. “They may be able to use it when they go to Montreal next year.”

The competition began with each team presenting its bridge to judges, who evaluated factors such as “aesthetics, workmanship, and originality,” Morgan said. “All of those were part of the overall score.”

Once the judging was complete, the fun began. As 75 high school students cheered, each bridge was loaded with a jack until it shattered. Behind the demolition table, screens showed a close-up view of the bridge and the load weight of the jack. As the loads increased, so did the volume in the room.

I thought that building a bridge would be long and agonizing, but it was good.

~ Matt Davison
Northfield High School senior

Matt Davison, a senior at Northfield High School, and his teammates were the first to watch their bridge undergo testing. “The suspension was great, but we didn’t reinforce the middle, so at 30 pounds, the bridge just split,” he said. That didn’t dampen his enthusiasm one bit. “Watching all the bridges break was a lot of fun,” he noted. He even admitted that the process, an extra-credit assignment from his physics professor, wasn’t all that painful. “I thought that building a bridge would be long and agonizing,” he said. “But it was good.”

The high school students took away more than just memories of bridges collapsing. “They’re learning the engineering-design process that all professional engineers must master,” said Bruce Bowman, engineering dean. “[They have to] understand the requirements and problems, develop the performance criteria, develop several possible alternatives, select the design alternative that best meets the requirements, and then build it and test it.”

They also gained an understanding of what goes into building structures. Even with materials as humble as popsicle sticks, glue, and toothpicks, contestants had to be aware of structural-design aspects such as tension, compression, and torsion. Bowman noted that “several teams even used computer-aided design software and computer simulation in designing their bridges.”

These real-world challenges give prospective engineers the chance to explore skills that are increasingly relevant for solving U.S. infrastructure problems such as collapsing bridges.  The reactions of the competitors suggest they appreciated the opportunity. Davison, for example, not only relished seeing the  spectacular collapses of the bridges, but also “gained the experience and the knowledge of the types of work engineers do, including the planning and the process,” all of which confirmed his decision to pursue engineering when he enters college in the fall.

“This [country’s] industrial pre-eminence throughout the twentieth century was largely built by engineers of one kind or another,” Bowman noted. But for the U.S. high school graduating class of 2007, only 5.2 percent of students taking the ACT college-entrance exam were interested in pursuing an engineering major. “The diminished interest by our nation’s youths in engineering is very troubling [for] our future economic well being,” Bowman said. “Events such as [this] bridge contest are designed to spur interest [among] high school students.”