Bridge-builders fall short at annual Midwest contest

Jodi Genshaft

MILWAUKEE – Snapping Legos together to build toy spacecrafts and creating bridges from toothpicks are just child’s play.

But these building blocks, coupled with a fascination for bridges, got Matt Weil hooked on engineering.

Building on those childhood designs, Weil and about 12 other Northwestern civil engineering undergraduates crafted a three-beam steel bridge for Friday’s Midwest regional bridge-building competition. But the $3,500 design — stretching 22 feet and weighing nearly 270 pounds — fell short of qualifying for nationals.

The universities of Wisconsin, Illinois and Purdue, which boast larger engineering schools, finished ahead of NU. In 2001, NU ranked 11 out of 44 teams at nationals, building the best bridge in the Big Ten.

“This is everything,” said Dan Hogan, an NU researcher who advised the team. “This is for pride. This is for bragging rights.”

NU’s red, white and blue-painted model, which the students built in about four minutes, still held the required 2,500 pounds.

“If we translated it to the real world, I think it would work,” said Weil, a McCormick sophomore.

Students from 10 Midwest schools first had to erect their bridges across a 12-foot blue tarp, which simulated a river. Bridges are scored on a monetary system with the lowest “construction cost” winning. Extra weight, assembly time and height bump up the cost.

Teams also were penalized for dropping tools and stepping into the river.

NU dropped a power drill and a beam while they assembled the bridge. At least one person also stepped onto the river.

“We never made such grand mistakes in practice,” said Helene Brennan, a McCormick junior.

McCormick senior Ron Antequino said the bridge construction was a “mish-mosh operation” for taking more than four minutes to complete.

The team altered its winning design from last year to compensate for a change in this year’s judging that favored sturdier bridges, Hogan said.

“You could drive a car over (the bridge) and it would support it,” Hogan said. “Each (beam) holds at least a ton.”

The team is no stranger to innovation. This year NU was the only school to design a three-beam bridge for the regional competition. In 2001, the team used a long rod to hoist the 60-pound beams across the river, a method picked up by at least one other team this year.

“Everyone else sends the football team up there with no neck and a Turkish towel around their head,” Hogan said. “(Northwestern) used their brains rather than brawn.”

But NU’s innovative spirit has hurt them in the past. The bridge collapsed in 1998, NU’s first time competing, and was disqualified in 2000 when it exceeded the maximum dimensions.

“When I die they’re going to write on my tombstone: DQ-ed,” Hogan said. “We’re going to get killed on the penalties.”

Since the Great Lakes region is one of the most competitive areas, its top schools try to win with “a lot of engineering and a little bit of scheming,” Hogan said.

Unlike NU, many schools hire contractors to craft their bridges.

“It looks unreal,” said Antequino, scanning Illinois’ bridge. “We could not have made that in our shop.”

Neither could Illinois: The university enlisted outside help to build its bridge, and the team included three first-year graduate students.

“All the grad students were home grown,” Illinois senior Peter Byler said.

Hogan said building the bridge at Technological Institute allows students to tweak the design along the way.

McCormick junior Bridget Bush added that the competition allows students to apply real-life rather than textbook approaches to engineering problems.

Despite the team’s loss, its members plan to forge ahead with their engineering careers.

“Civil engineering could do a lot of help for people,” said Ker Min Chok, a McCormick junior.