Bridges to Tennessee

Negaunee bridge-building team headed to nationals

The Negaunee High School team, Bridge Builders of Negaunee, competes in the Michigan Design and Build Bridge Challenge, which took place earlier this month in Grand Rapids. From left are Isaac Varty, Dan Nash and Marc Herring, who watch a judge look over their project. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Bell)

NEGAUNEE — Before big bridges are built, often little bridges have to be constructed first.

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

Teams from grades seven through 12 built miniature bridges using balsa wood, glue and string, which then were tested for strength and design. Teams also made detailed presentations about their projects before a panel of judges.

In the category for 11th- and 12th-graders, the Negaunee High School trio of Marc Herring, Isaac Varty and Dan Nash placed second as part of the Bridge Builders of Negaunee.

Taking fourth place in that category were the Negaunee Bridge Builders, whose members were Ally Jacobson, Emily Nelson and Colton Yesney.

Varty, a senior, enjoys building small bridges on several levels.

“It’s kind of cool to learn where the different forces are going in places, how to make things efficiently,” Varty said.

Another challenge was that the parts weren’t pre-built.

“We built this all ourselves,” Varty said.

The 12th-grader plans to go into welding after graduation, but he believes learning about structure and design should help him that field.

Since 2004, MDOT has been offering the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Transportation and Civil Engineering Program to Michigan schools.

TRAC is a hands-on education program designed for integration into science, math and social science classes, the ultimate goal being to encourage kids to pursue engineering and other science-related fields. The program engages high school and middle school students in solving real-world problems, such as designing bridges, building magnetic-levitation trains or analyzing the environmental and economic effects of building a highway.

This program is free to schools. According to MDOT, it provides training to teachers and engineer volunteers, with those volunteers speaking about their careers in transportation and working with the students using the modules in the classrooms. Teachers decide which modules fit into their curricula.

AASHTO has invited 18 Michigan teams to TRAC’s National Bridge Challenge in Franklin, Tennessee, later this month.

The Bridge Builders of Negaunee was one of those teams.

Negaunee High School industrial arts teacher Kevin Bell acted as adviser to both teams.

All the seniors have been with him for four years studying computer-aided design, he said, while many of them are in other programs, such as wood shop and welding.

“This is kind of the end result of that,” Bell said.

The teams had to write proposals, and they were long ones at that at about 45 pages. A 10-minute PowerPower presentation also was part of the competition.

The design and construction, he said, was completed in class before the state competition.

“They do research and all that and design their bridge,” Bell said. “We test them, and it’s kind of an ongoing process.”

The runner-up project was a self-anchored suspension bridge like the Mackinac Bridge.

“The cables suspend the roadway, or hold the suspended roadway,” Bell said.

Considering all the hard work that goes into an individual project, it might be a shame to break them down, which is the fate of some of the bridges.

However, Bell said he keeps the bridges that go to state and national competitions so they can be used as examples for future projects.

“We’ve been doing this now for 10 years, so they’ve done suspension before so we had that kind to go by, but we’ve done cantilever through truss,” Bell said.

They’ve also made arch and cable-stayed bridges as well as other types.

Another bonus in the bridge-building program is that MDOT will cover the team’s trip to Franklin, Bell said.

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

“We have been very lucky to win the nationals in the 11-12th grade division since 2009,” Bell said. “This year will be very competitive.”

For more information on TRAC program curriculum, visit michigan.gov/mdot-trac. For details about the AASHTO competition, visit tracrides.transportation.org/national-trac-bridge-challenge/.