TALLMADGE — Teams could be seen working together and focusing on their projects: small Balsa wood bridges averaging a foot in length. The students discussed their designs, the conversations occasionally punctuated by the hum of an air dryer used to dry glue holding the structures together. Student advisors and professional engineers came around to supervise and evaluate their work. 

The activity, the Miniature Bridge Building Competition, aims to serve as a bridge between students and potential careers in civil engineering. Twenty-seven teams from 12 high schools participated in the test, which is now in its 20th year. 

This year’s contest included competitions for load testing — how much the bridge will support before it breaks — aesthetics, and conceptual design. Teens from area high schools were encouraged to send up to three teams of two or three students to compete at the Summit County Fairgrounds on Feb. 14. 

Team 1 from Hudson High School ultimately took second place in the load testing competition at the annual event. Hudson High School sent three teams; Team 1, which included Senior Samantha Betts, 17, Freshman Jeremy Lavoie, 15, and Sophomore Natalie Kollar, 15, built a bridge that ultimately held 48.8 pounds.

"We try to give these students a chance to learn a little more about engineering," said Alan Brubaker, Summit County engineer. "There's actually a shortage of bridge engineers in Ohio. It's our way to give back to the community."

Heidi Swindell, director of administration, said the county engineer's office not only gives a grand prize of $100, A $70 prize was given to second place, and $50 to third. Students who have participated in the miniature bridge building competition and decide to study civil engineering in college can apply for a scholarship through the Summit County Engineer's office. 

"If you participate and you go into engineering, then you qualify," Swindell said. She added that the scholarship money comes from the event's sponsors.

New this year was a contest for the best construction plans, said Bob Hochevar, bridge engineer with the county engineer's office. There were two separate categories: one for best plans using manual drafting, and one using Computer Aided Drafting, or CAD.

"Typically, what happens is the engineer will come up with the plan, and another company will build it," Hochevar. “The plans needs to be clean and concise, and there is a lot of teamwork involved."

Billy Smith, 18, a senior from Hudson High School, said he had never competed before.

"We didn't expect much from our bridge going in, but we've one one done," he said.

Lucas Pierre, 16, a junior at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, said the competition was "really interesting."

"I've always built models myself, but I've never built one competitively," Pierre said. "It's been fascinating seeing the others' designs."

Jerry Drabeck, 18, a senior at Tallmadge High School, said that the event was fun, but "it's one of those things that you can certainly say that it's harder than it looks."

"It's very fun, but it's also very difficult," Drabeck said.

During the load testing competition, students attached a line with a hook to the bottom of their bridge, then connected the line to a five-gallon bucket already weighing 10 pounds, Swindell said.

If the bridge supports that weight, then students pour in weighted pellets, cup by cup, until the bridge breaks. Afterward, the students had the option to talk to professional engineers, who explain why their bridge failed and how to improve their design, Brubaker said.

Brubaker said that the competitions not only encourage students to design a bridge that can effectively bear weight, but is aesthetically pleasing.

"Some bridges you build, you will never see," Brubaker said. "But the ones that will be seen by your friends and neighbors, you want them to look nice."

Swindell said the county engineer's office supplies the Balsa wood used to construct the bridges, but the teams supply the other equipment, such as glue, cutting tools and hair dryers.

In addition to STEM-related skills, the competition teaches the value of teamwork, Brubaker said.

"It helps them be team players," Brubaker said. "Engineers are not out there working by themselves."

Reporter April Helms can be reached at 330-541-9423, ahelms@recordpub.com, or @AprilKHelms_RPC