Balsa bridge workshop gives kids look at engineering

Students prepare for 12th annual contest

Posted: Sunday, February 19, 2006

While there has been much talk in recent months of building bridges to nowhere in Alaska, some engineers are busy building bridges to the future.

The basement of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum was bustling with kids Saturday afternoon. They were learning the discipline of engineering in preparation for the 12th annual Balsa Bridge Contest. The contest will be held March 18, in conjunction with the Regional Science Fair in the Marie Drake School gymnasium.

"What we do is try to get kids interested in engineering," said Gary Scarbrough, the bridge inspection manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation. "As you can see, we've got some good little junior engineers out there."

Nearly a dozen kids spent the afternoon learning to build beam bridges out of balsa wood that will be "tested to failure" by hanging weight from a hook placed in the center of the structure during competition.

Peter Giessel, an engineer-in-training for DOT, said there is a lot of trial and error in building balsa wood bridges. He said the annual competition is important in inspiring kids because Alaska is facing a shortage of engineers.

"You give it a shot and see what happens," Giessel said. "Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. You learn from that. It's a great opportunity to learn about structures."

Saturday's workshop was held a month before the competition so the students could have some time to err during the trials of construction.

"We wanted to have the class a ways before, so if they wanted to make another one they'd have plenty of time to think about their structure and change what they felt needed to be changed and see if it works at the contest," Giessel said.

Nine-year-old Alex Kirchhoff, a first-time balsa engineer, wanted to participate because "it looked fun" to build and break bridges.

"I just want to make the best bridge I can and see how it is," Kirchhoff said.

Scarbrough, the engineer in charge of inspecting Alaska's nearly 1,000 bridges to ensure their safety for the traveling public, said the balsa bridge contest is a good way to get kids thinking about a career in engineering at a young age.

"They're starting to ask questions, 'How can I make it better?' And we introduce math terms and physical terms and that helps," he said.

The contest is open to all ages and is broken into three divisions - junior, senior and adult. Contestants construct balsa bridges that range from 1612 to 24 inches, and which must weigh less than an ounce.

Giessel, who will use his data acquisition system to test the bridges to failure, said the kids generally learn as much or as little as they want to about engineering when building balsa wood bridges.

"The kids learn about structures and they can learn as much as they want to learn," he said. "They learn what they put into it, so if they experiment around with the different shapes and see what works better, they can learn a lot."

Scarbrough said he is willing to give another demonstration before the competition if more kids are interested in learning about engineering. He said he can be reached at DOT.

"I hope word gets out and we get a bunch of bridges to break," he said.

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