Reality check – engineering can be an adrenaline rush

27142783742_690af8b834_kFor those with analytical minds, there is certain rush when an idea morphs into a design and then into something real.

Developing the minds of budding young engineers is the goal of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ TRAC™ program, which is a hands-on program designed for use in science, math, and social science classes. Part of the program involves a nationwide, annual bridge building competition for kids in seventh through 12th grades, culminating in a national completion at AASHTO’s annual spring meeting.

The initial phase of the competition happens at each team’s own school. Interested teams from schools that participate in TRAC™ order an entry kit that includes all materials (mainly balsa wood pieces and glue) and rules necessary for the competition. Teams use computer software provided at no charge by Bentley Systems Inc., a competition sponsor, to electronically design their bridges.

Since all materials are supplied by TRAC™, each three-person team starts on a level playing field. There are three levels of competition, each with a different type of bridge to be constructed.

  • Seventh/Eighth grade teams are tasked with designing and building a truss bridge.
    2016 aashto bridge competition grade 7 8 guidelines-3
  • Ninth/10th grade teams are to construct a vertical-lift bridge
    2016 aastho bridge competition grade 9 10 guidelines-3
  • 11th/12th grade teams have the task of designing and building a cantilever through truss bridge

2016 aastho bridge competition grade 11 12 guidelines-3

Once a team has settled on a design, they begin constructing their bridge, documenting the process as they go. To be considered for the national competition, the team prepares a proposal that is submitted to a panel of judges, along with design drawings and photos of the completed bridge. From those proposals, teams from each age group are selected to participate in the national competition held each year at the AASHTO Spring Meeting.

27153746921_a62f61f520_bThis year’s national competition was held in Des Moines in late May. Teams from Mississippi, Michigan, and New Hampshire traveled to Iowa to construct a bridge and make a presentation about their design and construction process to a panel of judges.

During the national competition, selected teams are asked to reconstruct their initial entry using the same materials. They are allowed to tweak their design slightly, but it is required to be substantially similar to the design that was submitted originally.

27239854795_da4f15dd86_kAn engineer’s job is to not only design a safe bridge to carry required loads, but also make sure it is cost-effective, meaning the design uses the least amount of materials to achieve the goal. During the national competition, each bridge is evaluated using a strength-to-weight ratio calculation to see which bridge carries the highest load relative to the bridge weight.



And the winners are:

Seventh/Eighth grade

  • First place: ZA2 Squad, Portage Central Middle School, Portage, Michigan
  • Second place: Master Bridge Builders, Long Beach Middle School, Long Beach, Mississippi
  • Third place: Elite Bridges, Guntown Middle School, Guntown, Mississippi

Ninth/10th grade

  • First place: Inspirational Inc., LISD Tech Center, Adrian, Michigan
  • Second place: Tupelo High School Team 1, Tupelo, Mississippi
  • Third place: The X2 Files, Kearsarge Regional High School, North Sutton, New Hampshire

11th/12th grade

  • First place: Bridge Engineers of Negaunee, Negaunee, Michigan
  • Second place: Irontown Bridge Builders, Negaunee, Michigan
  • Third place: Pee J’s Designs, LISD Tech Center, Adrian, Michigan

This year’s winning entries can be viewed at

Note: It wasn’t all work for these visitors to Iowa. The day before their competition, the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Institute for Transportation at Iowa State University hosted a tour of central Iowa that included the ISU’s Virtual Reality Applications Center and bioresearch farm, as well as a ride on the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad.

Boone & Scenic Valley RR
The train ride was a first for many of the participant.
Bio energy farm tour
The budding engineers learned how biomass and crop waste can be made into fuel.
Team at VRAC
The students and their teachers were wowed by a presentation at ISU's virtual reality application center.

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