Building Bridges from Popsicle Sticks, Competition Sparks Students’ Ingenuity

By Katy Wong

South Seattle- The Museum of Flight was filled with Popsicle stick bridges as high-school and middle-schools students fixed their creations with cutters and glue and teachers made final bridge inspections Saturday morning at the  20th Annual Popsicle Stick Bridge Competition.

With the application of math and science, the competition challenges students ability to build a strong, light, and aesthetically design bridge. Students who take part in the competition have to be enrolled in a high school-level math or science course.

Bridges are being placed on the table before being crushed by the machine press. (Photo by Katy Wong)

John Hunt , a math and science teacher at Holy Names Academy in Seattle  said their school has participated in the competition for about seven to eight years. The Holy Names Academy won third place in the strongest bridge categories in 2014.

Hunt said the most important reason he brought his students to the competition is to learn about teamwork and to have fun. At the same time, students get to learn more about structures and engineering.

The competition is hosted by the Seattle Section American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Younger Member Forum. The competition took place at the Museum of Flight on Saturday , and a total of 23 schools participated, with 63 teams among them.

Nik Gordon , the competition co-chair this year, said he wants to spur enthusiasm among students for engineering from this event.

“When I was a high school student, I didn’t have engineering on my mind until senior year,” said Cal Bearman,  the rules chair of the 20th Annual Popsicle Stick Bridge Competition.“If I would have a competition like this, I would have at least been thinking about it.”

All Western Washington high schools are encouraged to participate in the event; middle school students can also participate, but only at an unofficial level. Once a school submits the online application, the organization sends Popsicle sticks to the school. Students and teachers then can start building their bridges.

Brad Griffith, who has been doing craft stick bending of craft wood for about six years, said he donated about 20,000 Popsicle sticks to the contest. He set up a table at the event to show all his work to participants.

“I am obviously excited to see so many kids and all the Popsicle bridges, and buildings that they do,” Griffith said.

Students are required to follow a building code. The code included a 12-page description of the requirements for the Popsicle stick bridges, the judging process and information about the competition. The building codes are  modified every year.

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Participants waits for their results and looks at their bridge being crushed by the machine press. (Photo by Katy Wong)

“There is a lot of rules, and it really forces the kid to evaluate their design base on the criteria, which is very important in engineering,” said Lisa Horton , who teaches the structural engineering class at the Thunder Mountain Middle School in Enumclaw. “It forces them to redesign and make modifications.”

Gordon said one of the main changes this year is that bridges were required to have a navigation channel for transportation like boats, trucks, or even trains to go through. The roadway was required to be flat, with enough room for a 4-inch high by 4-inch wide vehicle to pass under the entire length of the bridge.

“The design of our bridge is made to distribute the weight, so it is not just centered in the middle,” said Kelsey Mulligan,  a student at the Thunder Mountain Middle School.  “For the underpart, we have a bunch of sticks supporting it, so it doesn’t break.”

Bridges are evaluated in two categories, including efficiency and aesthetics. A panel of technical judges disqualified any bridges that violated the building code.

Solene Daigle,  a student from the Holy Names Academy said the most challenging part in building the bridge is weight, and to make the bridge stays even. To solve the problem, Daigle said they had to do  a lot of cutting.

“We find out that triangle is very effective,” said Melissa Sta. Maria, a senior at Holy Names Academy who is interested in education and mathematics. “It took a lot of time to get the right angle.”

During the competition, students get to see their bridge being crushed with an official machine press, which helps the judges measure much load the bridge can carry.

Saturday’s events also featured a t-shirt competition in which students submitted designs, and a Q&A panel with a group of young engineers answering different questions from students during the event.

“Don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t close any doors,” said Horton. “Because you never know what opportunities an event like this might offered you later in life.”

The 2015 overall winner for the 20th Annual Popsicle Stick Bridge Competition was “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”  from Puget Sound Community School in Seattle . Port Angeles High School won first place for the strongest bridge, and the first place for aesthetic bridge went to Monroe High School.

One thought on “Building Bridges from Popsicle Sticks, Competition Sparks Students’ Ingenuity”

  1. I remember doing an activity very similar to this when I was in middle school. My peers and I had to build three different bridges out of popscicle sticks to see which one would hold up the best. We learned just how important it was to have a good truss and to pay attention to the math part of building it. Do you know what the strongest bridge design is? I would be interested in making a stick version of it and seeing how well it would hold up.