Bridge to victory

Negaunee trio wins national Bridge Challenge

\As a judge looks on, Negaunee High School students Marc Herring, left, Isaac Varty, center, and Daniel Nash test their self-anchored suspension bridge, which won the 11-12th grade division at the 16th Annual TRAC Bridge Challenge in Franklin, Tenn. Negaunee teacher Kevin Bell was their adviser. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Transportation)

NEGAUNEE — Michigan middle and high school students dominated a national bridge-building competition event in Tennessee May 22 as teams from around the state took seven of the top nine places.

It’s hard to be more dominating than garnering a first place, though, and that’s what happened with Negaunee High School students Marc Herring, Isaac Varty and Daniel Nash, who won the 11-12th grade division at the 16th Annual TRAC Bridge Challenge in Franklin, Tennessee.

The team known as the Bridge Builders of Negaunee finished ahead of the runner-up team, the Lenawee Intermediate School District Tech Center-Land Linkers from downstate Adrian. Third place went to The Internationals from downstate Schoolcraft High School.

The Michigan students faced off against other budding engineers from around the United States at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ competition. The teams spent months building miniature bridges using balsa wood, glue and string, which are then tested for strength and design. Teams also made detailed presentations about their bridges before a panel of judges.

It wasn’t the Negaunee team’s first taste of success this year.

Almost 200 teams composed of nearly 600 Michigan high and middle school students presented and tested their bridges at the 10th Annual Michigan Design and Build Bridge Challenge sponsored by MDOT May 1 at the Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids.

In the category for 11th- and 12th-graders at that event, the Negaunee High School trio placed second.

Negaunee High School industrial arts teacher Kevin Bell was pleased with this year’s results.

“I am very proud of all of my seniors that competed this year in the state and national competitions,” Bell said in an email. “The winning bridge held 356 pounds and only weighed 54 grams. They all made exceptional proposals, drawings and PowerPoint presentations that were very professional.”

Bell thanked the seniors for their hard work and dedication to the Negaunee program. He also thanked Julie VanPortfliet, who manages the TRAC program for MDOT, for her help and support for the program, and also AASHTO for its support of the national program.

Negaunee already has seen a lot of success as builders of bridges.

Bell pointed out that an NHS team has won the nationals in the 11-12 grade division since 2009.

In Franklin, 18 teams competed this year, having been selected from the 29 states across the country that participate. Besides Michigan, other teams came from from Virginia, Mississippi, Florida, New Mexico, California and Maryland. Team members were all involved in one of AASHTO’s educational outreach programs: TRAC — Transportation and Civil Engineering — for high school students, and RIDES — Roadways In Developing Elementary Students.

MDOT has been offering the TRAC program to schools in Michigan since 2004.

The competition’s goal is for teams to develop a bridge that will carry as much weight as possible while weighing as little as possible. Students compete in separate age categories: grades 7-8, 9-10 and 11-12.

Michigan teams took first place honors in all three age categories and secured seven of the nine top spots. In the 9-10 category, Kat Homeschool-Millennium A.R.K. Designers of downstate Portage took the top spot. Winning the 7-8 division was Meads Middle School-Trussworthy from downstate Northville.

“Seeing a generation of young women and men so engaged and enthusiastic about engineering gives me hope for the future,” said state transportation Director Kirk T. Steudle in a news release. “Thanks to Gov. Rick Snyder’s focus on talent, we expect even more success as the TRAC program grows.”

Going into this week’s competition, Michigan teams had already excelled, VanPortfliet said in a news release. Out of the 18 national slots available, nine went to Michigan teams.

”It was a great day for MDOT,” VanPortfliet said in a news release. ”The students from across Michigan not only made us proud of our commitment to support science, technology, engineering and math education, but they had us in awe as they presented what they learned while preparing for the competition.”

TRAC, a hands-on education program, is designed for integration into science, math and social science classes with the goal of encouraging kids to pursue engineering and other science-related fields. The Bridge Challenge is part of MDOT’s TRAC program curriculum.

More information is available at michigan.gov/mdot-trac.

Another facet of TRAC is its internship program, which offers 20 or so students in Michigan an opportunity to work for MDOT during the summer. VanPortfliet said many students have found hands-on, real-world learning was the key to their future.

”I’ve seen the tremendous difference the TRAC program can make for students,” VanPortfliet said. ”Many kids have gone through TRAC and gained the confidence that they needed to go on to success in college and careers.”

With a projected shortage of engineers in the U.S. workforce over the next 10 years, VanPortfliet said this program can help prepare students for key roles throughout MDOT, Michigan and the United States.