Students Participate in Balsa Wood Bridge Contest
It may be the lightest and softest member of the hardwood family, but balsa wood (along with roughly 30 students and two teachers from Capital High and Helena High) was the material of the moment at Morrison-Maierle’s first Balsa Wood Bridge Contest.
Led by Russ Lay, a bridge engineer in our Helena office, the contest required students to design and construct bridges using only the featherweight balsa wood and glue. The students, some who worked in teams and others who worked individually, created miniature bridges that were tested and ranked based on their strength-to-weight ratio.
Having competed in several bridge competitions as a BYU engineering student, Russ decided that one of his personal goals in 2021 was to develop a community service project geared to help create awareness for STEM careers. After getting an OK from Charlie Brisko, his supervisor and our bridge MGOL, Russ wrote a proposal for the contest that would be sponsored by the Helena Morrison-Maierle office. Jeff Ashley, our Helena OM, gave him the thumbs-up, and Russ introduced the competition to DeLacy Humbert, a physics teacher at Capital High, and Jonathan Driggers, a math teacher at Helena High who Russ says “have both been fabulous to work with.”
To kick off the event, Russ attended a CHS science club meeting to help spread the word and spent time at both high schools early in the academic year to show students some basic bridge-design techniques. Working with DeLacy and Jonathan, he provided the competition guidelines and specifications for the student projects during his visits to the high schools.
When competition day arrived in late February, Russ set up the event in the CHS cafeteria, gathered the students and teachers from both high schools, and tested 18 bridges on a mechanical testing device he built himself. After each student weighed their bridge, they took turns placing them on the device’s platform, making five initial points of contact with the press before the testing began. Once each bridge was carefully placed in the press, Russ gradually increased the load until the bridge buckled. The students recorded the maximum weight upon bridge failure then Russ ranked the bridges.
Always on the lookout for new opportunities to introduce students to STEM careers, Driggers said his technical mathematics class is currently studying trigonometry, “so this bridge project was a great fit.”
“When I heard about the bridge competition, I thought it would be a great opportunity for my students to practice some of the mathematics and reasoning strategies we’ve been learning in class in an application setting. In addition, my students also were able to improve upon their time-management and problem-solving skills.”
Morrison-Maierle’s Helena office provided post-secondary education scholarship money for the top three winning bridges.