Negaunee students arch over competition

NEGAUNEE – Three Negaunee High School seniors won a national competition in Louisville, Ky., last week when a balsa wood bridge they designed and built was able to support 130 pounds.

That may not sound like a lot – until you take into consideration the fact that the bridge, measuring 16 inches long and weighing only 32 grams, held more than 1,800 times its own weight. By comparison, the second place team’s bridge, weighing only four grams less, held 58 pounds.

Negaunee’s Reise Caya, Jeremy Bell and Keenan Gantz comprised one of only three teams nationwide whose bridge design was selected for the finals of this year’s American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ Transportation and Civil Engineering Program Bridge Building Competition.

The mission of the program is education outreach, designed for high school science, technology, engineering and math classes.

“The hands-on activities introduce students in grades K-12 to the work world of transportation and civil engineering and inspire them to consider careers in those fields,” according to AASHTO’s website.

More than 70 teams from participating states submitted bridge schematics into the competition. Using computer-aided design, the goal of this year’s contest was to develop an arch bridge – using only balsa wood and glue, and meeting other specific design criteria – with the maximum possible strength-to-weight ratio.

Bridge proposals were then judged based on whether they met these requirements, the specifications on their CAD drawings and the creativity of their design.

“We had to make a proposal – so that was like a big, written, 30-page-long thing – to get us into the competition,” Bell explained. “And once we were in, then we started building our bridge, and I guess the final thing we did was go down there and test it.”

Bell said the crux of their success was in designing a bridge with a solid, bended arch.

“There was a lot of other teams that had pieced together arches, and we just took the whole piece of balsa wood and bent it,” he said. “So that was kind of the difference between our bridge and other bridges.”

Starting out, the team used a CAD program to come up with a design. From there, the three used a print-out to build their bridge and put it to the test.

“We would print out a big piece of paper of the scale drawing, and you can lay it down on there and cut everything and then glue it together,” Caya said.

“Like a template, almost,” Bell added.

The three reached an easy consensus about their reaction to last week’s victory.

“It was awesome,” they said.

And while the three soon-to-graduate seniors may not be pursuing a career in civil engineering or the transportation sector, it’s obvious that their STEM classes at NHS have in one way or another helped guide their future.

Caya has joined the U.S. Marine Corps, where he plans to become a combat engineer; Gantz will pursue industrial technologies at Northern Michigan University; and Bell plans to begin studying mechanical engineering at Michigan Tech University.

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.