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Bridge-building exercise proves educational for engineering students

Learning by practice is always the best, says civil engineering professor Amr ElRagaby.

That’s what makes a contest to design and build a bridge from popsicle sticks a valuable experience for his students.

“They can understand the principles, but when the have a chance to apply the theories, they learn something they will never forget,” he said Wednesday, as members of his class in Finite Element for Analysis and Design tested the load-bearing capacity of their structures.

In the end, the winning team held more than 4800 newtons—almost 1,100 pounds—on their arched bridge, which weighed just over 1100 grams.

“Simpler is better,” said team member Josh Mailloux. “We had probably the fewest members of any of the contenders.”

His teammates Ismaeel Babur, Eric Sylvestre and Evan Reidel agreed, pointing out their design put the pressure on the members rather than the joints.

“We were happy to hold over 1,000 lbs.” Sylvestre said.

Another bridge actually held more weight, but lost points due to its greater mass and deformation under stress. Prizes were also awarded to the teams whose actual results came closest to their calculated predictions, and for the most innovative design. Each winning team received a cash award of $100, sponsored by Stantec Consulting and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“We always want the students to be as creative as they can,” said Dr. ElRagaby.

He added the contest would not be possible without the contributions of the course graduate assistant, Sara Kenno; faculty volunteers who acted as the judges; and his department’s technologists Lucian Pop and Matt St. Louis, who designed and built the specialized equipment that tests the bridges.

Third-year civil engineering students Josh Mailloux, Ismaeel Babur, Eric Sylvestre and Evan Reidel show off their winning design

Span-tastic: Third-year civil engineering students Josh Mailloux, Ismaeel Babur, Eric Sylvestre and Evan Reidel show off their winning design.