Tonawanda News

March 1, 2013

Students put engineering work to the test

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — AMHERST — There’s more than one way to build a bridge.

For about the past month or so, students in North Tonawanda High School’s Academy of Engineering and Architecture have been working on their structures for the Association of Bridge Construction and Design’s Western New York Model Bridge Contest, which took place Thursday at Classics V in Amherst.

For the past two years, Will Swart, Ryan Marriott and Mike Grimaldi — all now graduated — have brought home the top honors for North Tonawanda, said Chris Cook, teacher and co-director of the academy. Forty-five students made 20 bridges this year, some individually, some in teams.

The bridges must be constructed solely of balsa wood and glue, meet certain dimension and structural requirements and are tested at the event to see how much weight they can take before giving way.

“To win it, you have to have the best efficiency of the weight of the bridge to the amount of weight the bridge holds,” Cook said. “The bridges that hold the most aren’t usually the most efficient. You want to be efficient, just like in real life.”

The contest usually ranges from so-called “spaghetti” bridges to “bridges that just want to hold 700 pounds,” he said. The efficiency score is worth 25 points, while scores for complexity, engineering and workmanship add up to 15 points for a top possible score of 40.

Many of the students taking part in the competition have done so since they were freshmen, Cook said, and the bridges have reflected their experience.

“They’re always thinking about next year, ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that,’ “ he said. “They’re always competing with themselves to make the bridges better the following year and thinking about it, which is nice. And hopefully they learn more about the engineering of bridges.”

This year, the NT classes made a concerted effort to back away from heavier beam bridges and toward the lighter truss bridges — with mixed results Thursday.

Four schools took part, including NT, the Gow School, Pioneer High School and John F. Kennedy High School of Cheektowaga. Off the 44 total bridges, 20 were built by NT students.

As bridges were tested for their weight-bearing ability on one side of the room — some collapsed with barely a sound, some splintered and others cracked so loudly they could be heard throughout the facility — on the other side, students gathered at a table for a bridge post-mortem, inspecting their structures ... and discussing what they’d do differently next year.

Kyle Bortz, a NT junior competing for the third year, planned to find a way to strengthen the wood of his bridge, for which all the connections held but the material simply gave out .

“You can have a bridge built like a brick, but if there’s one weakness it’s not going to work,” he said. “It’s really opened my eyes to the engineering behind this.”

In the end, the top NT team of Jacob Claire, Andrew Walck and Travis Sikora finished fifth, with a score of 31.0. Their 20.15-oz. bridge held 36 pounds before giving out, but still remained relatively pristine.

“We tried a new thing with only truss bridges and no beams,” Walck said, inspecting the trio’s lightweight structure.

“... but we got beat by a brick,” added Walck.

Steven Andrzejewski of Pioneer High School won with a score of 34.3.