Written By: Julien Thomas

Students from the Engineering Mechanics class were assigned a very thin and frail sheet of Balsa wood (1/8”*4”*36”) and told to construct a bridge using their knowledge on trusses and forces. The real challenge, here was trying to build a structurally sound system that could withstand a reasonable amount of force. This task was further complicated by the fact that the bridge itself would be very light (typically less than an ounce), and when a load is applied onto the bridge, the individual members of the trusses would experience the force in tension or compression diagonally, vertically or horizontally. This made for an interesting test to see how well students could implement their knowledge of two force members in a truss and how well they could use that knowledge practically.
The students were given one sheet of wood per group along with paper clips and told to build their bridges, using standard designs such as the Howe truss and Pratt truss. After building their bridges, they competed to see which bridge could hold the most sand, as a load, before breaking. 

Astonishingly enough, some bridges could hold over 20 pounds before breaking. It is amazing to see how, by applying engineering principles, common expectations and assumptions regularly associated with materials can be exceeded or challenged.  

Engineering student, Jonathan had more to say about the experience.

Editor’s Synopsis:

Each semester, student’s from the Engineering Mechanics (EGM 3420C) class, are given the arduous task of creating a structurally sound bridge from the extremely lightweight wood from the Balsa tree. Though restricted to using traditional bridge designs, students are allowed to explore the full extent of their imagination with the aim of displaying their ingenuity while conveying their knowledge of bridge design. It is interesting to see the end results, as some of these bridges were able to withstand forces that were a lot more than one would expect them to be able to bear.

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FGCU Engineering Blog - Balsa Bridge Test
The Challenge to Build a Bridge Using Nothing but Weak Wood
Excellence in Civil Engineering Education
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NSF ENGINEERS GRANT –Co PI’s Dr. Tanya Kunberger and Dr. R. Christopher Geiger
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