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Building bridges, and winners

Posted on June 1, 2017

Riverdale student tests bridge at international competition

Riverdale students excel at bridge building thanks to the skills imparted by physics teacher Mark Wechter. For the past five years, our kids have nabbed all top 20 spots at the annual regional bridge building contest. And this year’s regional winner, sophomore Glenn Sutter (pictured), also went on to claim the top prize at the international competition – Riverdale’s fourth international win in the past five years. 

What gives our students such an advantage? Mr. Wechter says his class spends a lot of time discussing the rules governing the strength of each bridge component, identifying the type and magnitude of force each piece will undergo, and the impact of different thicknesses, lengths and densities of wood. They use diagrams of Portland bridges as well as theoretical bridges for practicing their skills. 

“They are allowed to ask as many questions as they like about design elements and rules, but each student in good faith needs to be able to sign a sworn statement certifying they designed and constructed their own bridge,” he says. “This is also why my answer to their questions is often, ‘It's your bridge,’ by which I mean they need to make their own decisions about their bridge, and they need to have solid logic supporting their decisions.” 

Mr. Wechter says being able to track how the forces distribute through the bridge from where it is loaded, and designing accordingly, is not intuitive for many students. Fortunately, Glenn says the curriculum came naturally for him: “I used to build a lot of things when I was younger with my brother, which definitely gave me an advantage over my classmates. When building my first bridge, I tried to make it as simple as possible with fewer parts that could break.” 

Simplicity is key, according to Mr. Wechter, who says most students over-engineer their bridges. “A simple, elegant design that addresses the rules for that particular year will outperform an overly complex design every time … Glenn did a great job of addressing the possible loading positions without overcomplicating his design.” 

Other schools have noticed Riverdale’s winning streak and reached out for guidance. For two years, Nestucca High School’s engineering class has visited Mr. Wechter for some bridge building pointers. He’s also been asked to join the international bridge competition leadership committee, which oversees contest rules, qualification and the integrity of the contest. We couldn’t be prouder of the impact he’s having on high school bridge building and our students.