NHS?students take top honors in national competition

Negaunee High School students display their winning bridge design to a group of former and current Michigan Department of Transportation officials. From left, former MDOT Chief Operations Officer and current head of the Maryland DOT Greg Johnson; NHS student Thomas Ziegler; NHS student Zach Champion; MDOT’s Bureau of Field Services Director Kim Avery; NHS student Mitch LaBelle; MDOT Director Kirk Steudle; and the NHS team’s adviser, Kevin Bell. Teams from Michigan took seven of the top nine places in the national competition held in Portland, Maine last month. (Courtesy photo)

NEGAUNEE — Michigan students literally stand out when it comes to building bridges, and Negaunee High School students led the charge at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials 15th Annual TRAC Bridge Challenge competition in Portand, Maine.

Teams of high school students built miniature bridges using balsa wood, glue and string. The goal of the competition is to develop a bridge that will carry as much weight as possible while weighing as little as possible, according to an Michigan Department of Transportation press release.

Eighteen teams were selected to participate in the national TRAC competition of the 250 across the country that applied; eight of those chosen were from Michigan.

In fact, teams from Michigan garnered seven of the top nine places in the national competition, taking first place honors in each age category consisting of seventh and eighth grades, ninth and 10th grades and 11th and 12th grades.

As part of the competition, the bridges are checked to see how well the design adheres to competition rules before testing the structure for strength.

The Negaunee team’s first place-winning bridge in the 11th and 12th grade division, built by Thomas Ziegler, Zach Champion and Mitch LaBelle, held 254 pounds, while weighing in at just 26 grams, for a strength-to-weight ratio of 4,440 to one.

NHS industrial arts teacher Kevin Bell said the school sent four three-person teams from his advanced computer aided design class to the state competition last month, with one team qualifying for national competition.

“It gives them experience with writing and computer skills,” Bell said. “But the drafting skills that they have to use to design the bridge, I think are the most critical.”

Bell said the competition, which NHS students have participated in for nine years, teaches invaluable skills.

“They are learning engineering skills and how to apply them to an actual project,” Bell said. “And the public speaking part of it, conveying your ideas to an audience, that is also a valuable piece of it.”

TRAC has several facets: In addition to the annual bridge completion, it’s an outreach program for high school and middle school students, giving their teachers curriculum enhancements to demonstrate engineering and transportation principles, along with an internship program, which offers 20 or so students statewide an opportunity to work for MDOT during the summer, the release stated.

Julie VanPortfliet, who manages the TRAC program for MDOT, said many students have found hands-on, real-world learning was the key to their academic career.

‘I’ve been involved with the TRAC program for years and it has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me,” VanPortfliet said. ”I’ve witnessed situations where kids have used TRAC and gained the confidence that they needed to go to college and be successful.”

Bell said he thinks the program provides knowledge to students that they may not otherwise get with the traditional education tract.

“I can’t say enough about MDOT and AASHTO and how much this program means to the kids, and recruiting civil engineers. It has opened kids’ eyes to civil engineering.”

The three-student team received a $1,200 prize for taking first place.

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is