High school bridge building competition revived after hiatus

Local high school students to test engineering skills at April 13 bridge-building competition at Penn State York
Balsa wood bridges built by high school students.

High school students show off their ingenuity by building balsa bridges.

Credit: Robert Farrell

YORK, Pa. — The annual high school bridge building competition that had been held at Penn State York for more than 30 years hasn’t taken place since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, with the help of the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers and C.S. Davidson Inc., the event has been revived and is slated to take place on Saturday, April 13, in the Precision Custom Components Community Room at the York campus. Bridge registration is from 11:30 a.m. to noon.

High school students from throughout York County are invited to participate by designing and building their own bridges, using only the materials and construction guidelines provided in a kit available for pick up in the Penn State York admissions office. Interested high school students should claim their kit, register via online form, and build their bridge prior to competing.

A brief history of the “Bridge Buster”

In the early days of the competition, bridges were tested by manually adding weights to a bucket, but the addition of each weight caused a sharp increase in load. Recognizing a need for a more gradual load increase, Charles Gaston, assistant professor of engineering at Penn State York, created a device that allowed students to add stress slowly to the bridge by turning a crank. The device also measured the load electronically for a more precise and accurate reading.

“Initially, the peak load before failure was determined by having a few people watch the real-time load number on a digital display and reach a consensus on the highest number seen,” Gaston said. “My last improvement was creating an electronic system that monitors the voltage representing the load, and determines the highest load reached or exceeded for at least one second. Brief spikes in the load don't count.”

Winners are determined through a calculation of strength-to-weight ratio, with the top three contestants earning prizes. All participants receive a Penn State York T-shirt.

Enriching the local engineering community

Penn State York offers a bachelor’s degree in electro-mechanical engineering technology and two engineering associate degrees (electrical engineering technology and mechanical engineering technology). Hosting community events, like the high school bridge building competition, offers a chance for students who might be interested in pursuing an engineering career to meet likeminded peers and network with faculty who have experience in the field; all while having fun and enjoying friendly competition.

“I have always enjoyed seeing creative solutions to open-ended engineering problems,” said Gaston. “It’s exciting to see a well-designed bridge rigidly withstand a high load, then suddenly fail catastrophically.”

For more information, contact Robert Farrell, director of academic affairs, at [email protected] or 717-771-4051. This event is free and open to the public.