Orange County Branch Newsletter

March 2016

Younger Member Forum/K-12 Outreach Committee

Popsicle Stick Bridge Competition

By: Eric Walker, Amy Choi, and Isamar Escobar

Just how much can a bridge support, if made of only Popsicle Sticks and Elmer's glue? More than one might think, and that is just one of the many facets to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Annual Popsicle Stick Bridge Competition (PSBC). Each year ASCE Younger Member Groups from around Southern California collaborate to host PSBC, a K-12 event that is more than Popsicle Sticks and glue. The 22nd annual event was held at the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC) on February 20th2016. The event brought together 49 teams of high school students from all over Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties totaling 200 participants and advisors.

Being a great engineer requires more than just design skills. Successful engineers also exercise soft and technical skills, including technical expertise, working with groups, clients, managers, schedules, budgets, presentations, and more. Collaboratively, these skills make up the challenging and fun aspects of working in the field. For PSBC, we endeavor to show students what some of the possibilities are with a career in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), while facilitating hands-on experience. This opportunity allows them to learn some of the skills that will help them succeed. To promote the importance of engineering and STEM while integrating the soft skills needed to succeed, we assembled a program which hit four major categories: Preparation, Presentation, Design, and Craftsmanship.

To emphasize preparation and writing, each student team submitted a technical paper prior to the event. The paper detailed the design process, any challenges the team overcame, and more which was then reviewed by several volunteers. Engineers write all the time, everything from:  reports, studies, proposals for projects, and other as-needed reasons. By writing the paper, students practice technical writing skills while learning to guide the reader through a team’s thought process by utilizing proper grammar, logical progression, and analysis of designs. Melissa Hilsabeck and her team were tasked with grading the papers. Every year we are astounded with how articulate the students are: writing with a fluency and formality that outpace many college essays. We encouraged the students to create display boards representing their design process. They were tasked with presenting their board. These two lessons allowed them to exercise their creative and presentation skills. Lead judge for the display boards, Roxanne Follis, knew the submissions artistic and imaginative.

Since the bridges are constructed before the event we needed to send out a set of rules and guidelines for construction. Isamar and her team reviewed and updated the rules for this year’s event to foster new and innovative designs balanced with an approachability that wouldn’t discourage students from participating. Every year we see a wide variety of designs from abstract arches to more traditional trusses and everything in between. As any engineer or contractor can attest, design is not 100 percent of what makes a project successful. A flawless design executed poorly can be worse than a mediocre design constructed well. Most teams focused on design and construction. It was portrayed by the symmetry and attention to detail that was noticed by a quick glance. As the load testing revealed, craftsmanship distinguishes the top tier bridges from the rest. Judging this attention to detail, as well as the overall aesthetics of the bridges rested in the capable hands of Alyssa Kumnoonsate and her team.

The big day arrives at 4:40 am on February 20. The morning starts out a bit early for Amy Choi, Eric Walker, and Isamar Escobar, who have been coordinating many behind the scenes aspects of the event, including rules, coordinating volunteers, securing a testing machine, catering, and venue. This is the day when all the effort comes to fruition! A few hours later, students file into registration and bridge compliance where Rafael Contreras and his group inspect the bridges confirming they meet all the requirements. During this time, students look at each other’s bridges and posters gauging where they fit into the mix. Once everyone settles into their seats, Eric takes to the podium, glances around to see all the volunteers are ready, then takes a deep breath, and says Let’s do this! He does a quick welcome speech and thanks the sponsors, the students break into four color groups and are assigned to a rotation: Technical Tour, Impromptu, Presentations, and the most exciting and nail biting of all, Bridge Testing.

The first group walks over to the Technical Tour where volunteers talk about their experience in engineering and give a brief overview of what the engineering field consists of. Luckily we have several volunteers throughout the day from the City of Anaheim and various Firms who worked on the design of ARTIC. These Professionals take the students around and give them an in depth look at what went into the process of building the station from concept to completion. Since each rotation is one hour and fifteen minutes long the volunteers can really dive into the specifics of the station as well as share personal anecdotes with the students. The Technical Tour station is really where we open up the vast possibilities of careers in engineering and bring concepts home with tangible examples the students can see right in front of them.

Off to Impromptu where students find out what the challenge for the day is going to be. Hugo Camberos in conjunction with the volunteers from San Bernardino/Riverside YMF composed a fun design and construction activity where students were given a budget and a list of materials they could “buy” in order to build the tallest tower that could withstand the hurricane force winds (simulated of course) of our industrial fan. This activity introduces budgeting as well as conflicting design parameters to the students all in about one hour from start to finish.

A full day of building, testing and presenting wouldn’t be complete without lunch and this year Subway really came through. We organized a set of tables with each type of sandwich, had the volunteers hand out the sandwiches, and passed the participants to the next table to pick up drinks and chips. The upfront organization allowed us to serve all the students, advisors, and staff in less than 20 minutes!

People say Public Speaking is the number one fear for many people so I can only imagine most students are dreading the next rotation: the oral presentations. Standing at the foot of the escalators waiting for your group to be called then riding up to stand and present your design to four Engineers can seem extremely daunting! Fortunately Remi Candele, Josue Vaglienty, and their team of judges are prepared to give gentle encouragement while still poking to see how much the students know. Despite the potential nerves and stress the students shine: from dressing up to showing a refined understanding of their material. Many of the teams really exude professionalism and poise before heading off to the final rotation.

Everyone in the Bridge Testing rotation start to crowd around the machine and line up positioning to see the bridges getting tested. Phillip Davies and his crew load the bridges into the machine and the 4x4 wood block begins pressing down, 50 pounds, 100 pounds, 200 pounds. The first pops of glue slip out of the bridge while the loading machine compresses further and further.  250 pounds, then more. The creaking gets louder until finally BANG! A connection fails and the load sensor flashes back to zero. The twisted bridge is pulled out of the testing machine to the cheers and applause of the crowd before being handed to one of the engineers who explains to the team how the bridge failed. Some of the bridges have spectacular brittle failures with snapping sticks and cracking joints while others fail slowly with ductility until the loading machine stretches the bridge too far. The highest load of the day came in at an astounding 1129 pounds, certainly an accomplishment to be proud of!

After running through each of the rotations, the teams settle back into their seats while the volunteers tally up all the scores for the day and determine the winners. This part of the event can often be the most squeamish as the students have been active since about 9am and are chomping at the bit to find out the results. Fortunately this year Mike McCullough from the Walt Disney Company is our Keynote Speaker. He recounts his journey through engineering and how he came to work on many of the exciting projects he now is involved in. After speaking he fields questions from the students while volunteers wrap up the winner’s certificates. Amy Choi then takes the stage to announce the winners for all the various categories from Best Impromptu to the grand prize, Best Overall. The mood of the award announcements is nervously excited silence punctuated by thunderous applause as Amy calls up each of the winners. It seems like Amy pauses for an eternity before calling out the final and most prestigious Best Overall Awards, announcing third place, then second. Each team coming up brings the remaining teams closer and closer to the edge of their seats. “The First Place Overall award goes to… Ambassador School of Global Leadership – Global Interlink!” The team jumps up from their seats and runs to the front, thanking us profusely for the award. Everyone in the audience cheered for yet another exciting and action packed day of learning through bridges, for another successful PSBC.