Story last updated at 1:55 p.m. Thursday, May 9, 2002

Design nets bridge builder top award
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo by John Szajkowski
Jared Szajkowski adds yet another weight ot his bridge - the tiny sturcture at the top of the photo - during the international bridge-building contest last week in Bellingham, Wash.  
In what could be considered the Olympics of basswood bridge-building, Homer High junior Jared Szajkowski holds a gold.

Szajkowski took the top spot in the 2002 International Bridge Building Contest last week in Bellingham, Wash., with a 30-gram bridge that held 4,800 times its weight. Homer senior Matt Ingels took ninth at the same event with a bridge that held 3,068 times its weight.

Szajkowski said he knew his bridge was strong going into the competition, but when he started loading weight on the little wooden span, it was hard to keep track of whether he was winning or not.

"It's kind of hard to tell. While you put on the (weight) plates, you don't know exactly how much you have put on it," he said. "I knew this bridge was going to do pretty well, but at the very end, I knew I was very close to being first."

Szajkowski's bridge, in fact, held almost 317 pounds before cracking, earning him the No. 1 spot in the contest as well as a 50 percent scholarship to the Illinois Institute of Technology, a top-of-the-line drafting and design program and a plaque.

The bridge might have held more, he said, if he hadn't run out of room on the weight-loading device. After filling the apparatus with weights, Szajkowski's bridge kept holding, so he had to remove some of the 10-pound weights and put on 25s before the bridge reached its maximum. Strain during the switch may have reduced the amount the bridge would hold, but the bridge still withstood almost 22 pounds more than the second-place finisher.

The Bridge-Building Contest draws competitors from all over the country and is open to international participants as well. This year is the 25th year the contest has run, and 68 high school students tested their constructions built from identical guidelines.

Bridges are built out of basswood supplied in a kit and connected with any commonly available adhesive. This year, the bridge was required to span 300 mm, be no longer than 400 mm, no taller than 150 mm and weigh no more than 30 grams.

The secret to his success, Szajkowski said, is no secret at all. It's the old adage that practice makes perfect. Though his first bridge was built back in the fourth grade, the teen said he began building bridges for the competition in ninth grade. That year, he built four bridges. Last year, Szajkowski built 13 bridges, won the regional competition and placed ninth in the international contest. This year, he built another 14 for a total of 31 tries at building the strongest balsa-and-wood-glue creation possible.

"It's really the experience. After building that many bridges, you get to know" what makes a strong bridge, he said.

With every new bridge, Szajkowski literally built on his past failures, strengthening areas that failed and removing weight from areas that didn't need it.

Ingels said his bridge-building gave him an appreciation for where weight travels on a structure.

"I like the program a lot. It helps me understand structural design a little better," he said. "You can see where this weight would affect the bridge,"

It's skills like those that Szajkowski and Ingels' bridge-building coach, Homer High math and physics teaacher Dick Sander, said students participating in the contest will likely find useful later in life.

Homer is one of the only schools in Alaska to compete regularly, thanks in large part to Sander, who has integrated the bridge competition into part of his senior-level class since 1985. In past years, several students have either sent bridges or attended the international event in the Lower 48, with increasing success. This year, the Homer Foundation donated $350 to help the pair get to Bellingham.

Sander said the exercise gives students a hands-on look at what engineering is all about, working with finite funds, time and a tough engineering problem. In addition, students must apply the scientific process of trial and error to succeed.

"They are not used to trying and failing," Sander said, adding that he doesn't give students advice on the best designs beyond discussions about basic principles. "They always want to start with a good design. They are not used to messing it up."

Sander said he hope other schools in Alaska will take note of Homer's success and participate in the event next year.

Both Szajkowski and Ingels plan to pursue careers in engineering, and Szajkowski said the contest has played a part in discovering his forte.

"I've gotten a view of engineering in general" from the competition," Szajkowski said. "I guess my interest has been magnified by this competition. It's turned on my desire to learn about it, and I really want to learn it vs. just going into it. It's a real interest point in my life."