Students get a ‘real world’ taste of engineering challenges

Final stage of bridge competition organized by local Professional Engineers group takes place Saturday at Lambton Mall

Pictured at last year's competition is Deep Chaudhary, a member of the Lambton Chapter of the Professional Engineers of Ontario.
Pictured at last year's competition is Deep Chaudhary, a member of the Lambton Chapter of the Professional Engineers of Ontario.

Stress it till it breaks. That seems to be one of the objectives of a competition taking place this Saturday at Lambton Mall, an annual Bridge Construction Challenge that’s organized by the Lambton Chapter of the Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) and both school boards in Lambton and Kent counties.

The competition, which has been running for 12 years, is the culmination of four months of “Engineer for a Day” bridge building activities involving students and their mentors, all of whom are members of PEO.

The volunteers go to each class in pairs and students work in groups of four to design and build bridges, using craft sticks and hot glue guns. They adhere to a set of distinct specifications, then those structures get put to the test.

At least 1,000 elementary students in grades five to eight were involved in this year’s construction challenge. Some 17 volunteers spent an estimated 500 hours with students, leading them through the hands-on activity.

The volunteers went to schools throughout Lambton and Kent counties.

Students were asked to build the strongest bridge they could, using the least materials—a “real world” engineering challenge—when designing their bridges, says Phil Lasek, a senior electrical engineer at Shell Canada and chair of the local chapter of PEO.

“This is a fun and practical way to learn concepts within the Ontario Science and Technology curriculum,” added Lasek. “It also creates an awareness of the opportunities and challenges available in a technical education and career.”

Wendy Hooghiem works as a Science Partnership Technician in the Science Education Partnership, which involves both school boards. “The activity fits with the students’ ‘Understanding Structures and Mechanisms’ strand of the Ontario Science and Technology curriculum where students learn about making strong, functional structures and identify the forces acting on and within structures.”

The strongest bridge from each class then made it to Saturday’s final competition.

Nine entries from local Scouts Canada troops will also compete in final testing as part of their emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math activities. About 35 Scouts and Venturer Scouts participated in this year’s competition.

Bridges that have made it as far as Saturday’s event at Lambton Mall will be loaded to the point of breaking, with the mass of the bridge also taken into account.

The winner will be the lightest bridge that could handle the largest load, as measured at the point of failure. A special pneumatic machine, designed by PEO members, applies pressure on the bridge structure until it breaks.

Clearly, both students and volunteers benefit from the experience, says Lasek of the PEO.

“Our volunteers have as much fun as the students,” he said.

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