Building a better bridge

By Ralph Nardone Times Leader correspondent

February 8, 2014

DICKSON CITY — Local students using their brain power competed at the 2014 Northeast Pennsylvania Regional Bridge Building Competition conducted on Saturday at the Viewmont Mall.

About 50 bridge builders gathered from school districts from 19 nearby counties. All were there to showcase their masterpieces made of basswood. Each bridge could weigh no more than 25 grams and had to be less than 400 mm long and 80 mm wide.

The specific guidelines were provided by the competition’s directors and local engineering experts and educators, Donald Kieffer and Paul Schneider. Even though they worked within tight rules a wide variety of bridges were tested with some supporting over 5,000 times their own weight, according to Kieffer.

Kate O’Connor, an architectural professor from Marywood University, assisted at the contest and marveled at the talent, enthusiasm and pride shown by competitors. She was impressed with the level of creativity exhibited by each builder with the ability to marry “design and structure.”

Going through the actual building process provides an “interactive” learning experience, O’Connor said. It requires more student involvement than working in a virtual computer-generated world, she added. Plus the contest is evaluated using technically “non-biased” criteria, she said.

Jackson Renninger, one of two competitors from the Abington Heights, participated for the first time. He said his bridge was the last of ten trials. Overall the exercise was “pretty fun,” he added.

Nathan Laubham, also from Abington Heights, constructed a lighter bridge, only weighing about 9 grams. However, his span reached a load capacity of over 3,600 times its weight, which landed him in sixth place.

The first-place trophy went to North Pocono’s Parth Bhoiwala with load efficiency 5,507 times its weight. He also went with a lighter design. His bridge weighed only 6.34 grams, but held 34,917 grams. He said he used a lot of “triangles” in his design because they “hold a lot of weight.”

Second place went to Valley View’s Zach Shnipes and third to Pocono Mountain East’s Dawid Rychek. Shnipes also won the excellence in architecture award based on aesthetics.

Carbondale High School’s Morgan Walsh said her bridge was a little “too fancy” and had to be pared down to meet competitive limits.

The bridges were checked by professionals from local engineering firms and schools, according to Kieffer. The winners of the competition are eligible for scholarships and to vie for the international honors in Chicago this spring, he added.

O’Connor hopes the contest can build some interest in local students to pursue careers in engineering.

“The world needs more engineers than lawyers,” she said.