State's best bridging students visit New River Gorge
FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. -- "Do you see the bars and tubes of the bridge? See the joints?" Greenbrier East High School physics and chemistry teacher Barbara McElwain asked students as she pointed to the metal beams under the New River Gorge Bridge Friday afternoon.
The 45 middle and high school students from across West Virginia who walked along the narrow catwalk directly beneath the bridge deck know all about a bridge's structure, as they make up the top 20 virtual bridge-building teams in the state.
On this sunny afternoon, the students walked about 870 feet above the New River and touched the cold metal, felt the bridge shake and heard cars whizzing by above them.
The students, between the ages of 13 and 18, will compete Saturday in the West Virginia Statewide West Point Bridge Design Contest at Marshall University.
This is the 13th year for the statewide contest. A national West Point Bridge Design contest also is held annually.
The competition, sponsored by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., provides students with a realistic, engaging introduction to engineering, bridges and transportation through Internet-based bridge-designing software.
Students use the computer program to design the least expensive bridge that a truck could cross without causing the bridge to collapse.
West Point released the new software -- which is updated each year -- in January and students had until March 25 to submit their designs.
Nearly 300 West Virginia students submitted designs to the national competition. During the national semifinal round on April 5, 17 of the 40 teams remaining were from West Virginia.
Nick Bartusiak, 16, of Shady Spring High School, and Aniket Zinzuwadia, 17, of Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley, won the final round for the second year in a row, which makes them the only team in the nation to win back-to-back contests.
The pair constructed a bridge that "cost" $247,537 and each took home a $10,000 scholarship and a laptop for the second straight year.
The high school juniors credited their success to teamwork and a personal interest in math and science.
"We make a good team because we complement each other. I'm more of a numbers guy and Nick is good at application," Zinzuwadia said. "When I figure out a design, he helps me implement it. We're both really interested in how science is applied to the real world and wanted to take it to another level."
Zinzuwadia said many people didn't expect the two to win because "we're from West Virginia, [and] we can't win a national contest."
Not only did they twice prove those opinions wrong, but their two-time triumph shows how important the "administrators" are, especially in this state, he said.
Those administrators -- West Virginia's teachers -- are the main reason students have been so successful in the contest, said Amanda McClellan, a coordinator of the contest.
"It takes a good teacher to take those skills you learn and use them by making it fun for your kids," McClellan said. "The number of students participating in the state has grown tremendously over the years. They're doing very well and it's because we have wonderful teachers that have stuck with this."
McElwain said she and her students have participated in each bridge-building contest for the past 13 years because it's part of her job to do so.
She hosted after-school sessions for students who wanted to work on their bridge designs.
The state pushes STEM teaching -- an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- and this design contest is all about analytical thinking, McElwain said.
Many students graduate from high school without the necessary skills to fill jobs, such as engineering skills, but programs like this competition can change that, she said.
"We have a shortage in our country for engineers and it's my job to get kids interested in engineering while they're young," McElwain said, standing in the center of the New River Gorge Bridge's catwalk. "We don't make them analyze enough, we don't prepare them to be engineers. . . . I would like to see more done in high schools to better prepare them, which means a higher level of math and science, and contests like this."
McElwain's daughter, Summer, 13, of Eastern Greenbrier Middle School, and her teammate, Kyra Lampert, 13, went to the final round of the Army-Navy Bridge Design Contest, which is exclusively for sixth- and seventh-grade students.
Lampert took more to the architect end of the design contest by drawing up each bridge sketch, while Summer McElwain drafted her teammate's concepts on the computer program.
Arch bridges -- like the one they examined Friday afternoon in person -- are the hardest to build, Lampert said.
"Sometimes, you can change the size of one bar or tube and it messes up the whole design," Summer McElwain said. "It's so cool, we get to see this bridge in person. It gives me ideas for next year's design using the computer program."
Jimmy Wriston, senior engineering adviser for the state Department of Transportation, said the West Virginia Statewide West Point Bridge Design Contest is one of the most important programs the state offers.
The Division of Highways spends its entire educational-outreach fund on the contest, he said.
Wriston has volunteered at each statewide contest by explaining to students why certain beams are necessary, how the bridge moves and more.
He said the bridge-building program is innovative and exciting for students.
"We've got to raise the bar on math and science, and this is the way to do it, to get them out of the classroom," Wriston said. "Using the computer to solve analytical problems that are in the real world -- there is no better model or example, and to come out and walk on this bridge is the real deal."
The top 20 West Virginia teams will compete in the statewide contest Saturday at Marshall University. Students will have two hours to create a virtual bridge that is the least expensive and most effective. While Bartusiak and Zinzuwadia won the national competition and the big prize, another West Virginia team could win first place Saturday for the statewide contest.
Every team member will get $100 for participating. First place takes home $400, while second place earns $300 and third gets $200.
For more information, visit wvbridgecontest.com or bridgecontest.usma.edu.
Reach Megan Workman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5113.