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Bridges built to bear: Students compete in mini construction contest

YOUNGSTOWN — Some structures have collapsed under their own weight, but a bridge Morgan Davis worked on collapsed with its own weight under it.

“I like the hands-on aspects of architecture,” Davis, 17, a Trumbull Career and Technical Center junior, said. “I’m always interested in looking at houses and how to build the structures.”

She didn’t exactly build a house, but Morgan, along with fellow TCTC juniors Derrick Double and Acelin Carpec, did construct a bridge from balsa wood, which was part of Thursday’s 14th annual Mahoning Valley Miniature Bridge Building contest in Youngstown State University’s Chestnut Room.

Juniors and seniors from TCTC and 11 other schools in Mahoning and Trumbull counties participated in the competition to build the lightest bridge that could withstand the most weight under it before collapsing, also known as the strength-to-weight efficiency ratio. Each school brought two teams with up to three students each, explained Larry Webster, a structural engineer with MS Consultants Inc.

The other schools were the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center, Youngstown Early Rayen College, Valley STEM Academy and Lowellville K-12 School as well as Mineral Ridge, Jackson-Milton, Ursuline, Cardinal Mooney, Brookfield, Hubbard and LaBrae Local high schools.

Davis, Double and Carpec designed a medium-sized bridge with a triangular design and X patterns on each side. Beforehand, they relied on a computer program to help them visualize the design, said Davis, who is considering Kent State University for possibly pursuing an engineering degree.

The X pattern on each side was a way to allow weight on the bridge to be more evenly distributed and balanced, given the resistance quotient, Derrick explained.

For the competition, each bridge was fitted atop an opening in a wooden test fixture, with a bucket underneath into which small weights were scooped. Chain links with hooks were affixed to the wooden bridges, and the hooks attached to the buckets that were slightly off the ground. The teams filled the buckets with the weights until their bridges collapsed.

For their part, Davis’ team’s bridge held 25.33 pounds of pressure before coming apart, Derrick said. The TCTC seniors’ team’s bridge withstood 27 pounds of weight before failing.

Brianna Wright, 14, Zoey Nulty-Oliver, 15, and Keyah Yelverton, 14, Rayen Early College students, designed a flat bridge that held about 15 pounds of weight before collapsing.

Wright said she wasn’t sure if she planned to pursue an engineering degree and career, but she has an interest in real estate, as well as how homes are built and can be repaired.

Before Thursday’s contest, most of the 12 schools had held in-house competitions, from which the top two teams were selected to be in the event at YSU, said Anna Gasser, who works for Bloomington, Minn.-based Hunt Electric Corp. and is formerly of MS Consultants. Hunt Electric also is an electrical contractor for the Ultium Cells LLC battery cell plant in Lordstown.

Dante Castronova, a bridge engineer with GPD Group, an Akron-based architectural firm with an office in Youngstown, said his role in Thursday’s event was in part to give the students a more thorough understanding of the physics behind their bridge failures. He also was on hand to offer suggestions to them, Castronova added.

“We sort of do an autopsy,” he continued.

Castronova explained that students’ bridges were required to not exceed a certain number of pieces and had to adhere to height and width restrictions. Making the proper connections between the wood pieces also was critical, he added.

Webster and Dan Klecha, GPD’s business developer, said the competition’s underlying idea was to whet students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as well as to help them consider and better appreciate career possibilities in the STEM field.

The contest also coincides with the difficulty many engineering firms are having in finding interns and employees, Klecha added.

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