YORKVILLE, Ill. – Imagine scores of people sitting still and silent, watching sand slowly trickle into a bucket. They listen for any small snaps or for that one loud crash of a collapsing bridge before they burst into cheers. This was the scene at the 8th Annual 4-H Bridge Bust Contest, as multiple teams kept the audience waiting longer than usual as sand filled the bucket to the brim or past, breaking previous weight records.

“For nearly a decade, this Bridge Bust Competition has promoted engineering, creativity, teamwork, communication and sportsmanship,” said Jo Ann Britton, 4-H Youth Development Program Coordinator with University of Illinois Extension. “The goal is to provide area youth and families with a unique way to challenge their brains, work together and learn new things, all while having fun.”

Despite the expected icy January weather, teams came out to compete from Aurora, Downers Grove, North Aurora, Oswego, Plano, and Yorkville, along with spectators, volunteers and supporters representing DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. Seventeen teams participated in the 2020 event organized by the University of Illinois Extension’s 4-H program, with support from Rural King of Plano and Cross Lutheran School in Yorkville.

Of those 17 teams, three broke records for the amount of weight held. These record-breaking weight-bearing bridges were: the Zawlocki Family of Yorkville with 62.4 pounds, and two O’Neill Middle School (OMS) teams of Downers Grove, reaching more than 70 pounds. The Zawlocki team included parents April and Matt, and their children Trevor, Sophia, and Amelia. The OMS teams were Bill Nye’s Bridge Builders with 73.8 pounds and The Scribes of Ebeneezer Wheezer with 74.2 pounds.

“Some of our teams’ bridges held not only the full bucket of sand but additional sand added in other containers!” Britton said. “It was amazing to see the strength of these bridges, which were built only from lightweight balsa wood and wood glue. It shows that design can make all the difference!”

However, holding weight is not enough, as the true goal is structural efficiency, added Britton.

That calculation takes into account the weight of the bridge itself and the equation used provides a structural efficiency rating. The 2020 Overall Structural Efficiency Award went to the Wendorf Family of North Aurora with a rating of 488.412. Their bridge – built by Kris Wendorf, and his sons Jude and Konrad, and Ken Bragg – held 47 pounds and was the lightest weighing bridge in the category. According to Kris, the project took time and patience from the entire family.

“The bridge building table took over part of the living room for three weeks,” said Kris, laughing. “We even put a bathroom remodel on hold.” Brothers Jude and Konrad said they were excited to see the bridge do so well. “It lasted a long time!” said Konrad.

The Overall Aesthetics Award went to the Emmert Family of Yorkville. Aesthetic scores are based on provided specifications, the quality of craftsmanship, sound structural design and originality. Craig and Magdalena Emmert and their children Paul, Anna and Eric have made the Bridge Bust event a family tradition. This year, their bridge featured both vertical and diagonal supports and an undercarriage.

Before testing the bridges, the crowd could make paper or linguine bridges at two activity stations led by 4-H Teen Science Ambassadors, and the crowd heard from two guest speakers, highlighting different work in the field of engineering. Jeremy Metz, a surface transportation engineer with CMT, spoke about civil engineering education and options, and shared his own experiences with the crowd. In addition, 4-H alum and University of Illinois student Ethan Heidrich provided an overview of his experiences with 4-H and how they helped shape his future.

“4-H allowed me to explore a vast array of subject matters, which got me hooked on both environmental science and creative design,” said Heidrich, who grew up in Oswego. “These have merged into my interest in environmental and water resources engineering.”

Similarly, he said Bridge Bust allows participants to showcase science and engineering understanding as well as their creative, innovative side. “It also allows them to work with others and to learn from their experiences.”

For weeks, the registered teams designed and built bridges – each with the same provided materials and guidelines. Teams compete in multiple divisions, including family, youth, school, and non-competitive.

“From start to finish, this project encourages planning, time management, teamwork, communication, and sportsmanship, as well as skills in engineering, physics, math, and design,” said Britton, adding that it is clearly reflected in the post-event feedback.

One youth wrote, “I learned how to improve our bridge design by looking at how other bridges broke. I have learned our weaknesses in our bridge, and now know how to improve for next time.” Another said, “I learned to evaluate and adapt,” and several others listed patience, problem-solving, perseverance, dedication, teamwork, listening, respect, sharing ideas and preparation as things they learned.

“I learned it’s easier with a partner and how to work together,” said Kyle Siegal of OMS’ “Bill Nye’s Bridge Builders” team, which met afterschool with other OMS students, Dr. Meg VanDyke and an engineer volunteer known as Pop. “We studied past designs, what works, what doesn’t, and then upgraded the design.”

They also learned to identify stronger pieces of wood and where to use them in the design. Siegal credits “less glue and more pressure” as the key to the bridge built with partner Zevi Davis. The duo claimed the event’s first-ever People’s Choice Award, which included votes from competitors and spectators alike.

Full results of the 2020 Bridge Bust are as follows:

Family Division: Aesthetics Awards: first place – Emmert Family of Yorkville; second – Zawlocki Family of Yorkville; third – Stewart Family of Yorkville. Structural Efficiency Awards: first – Wendorf Family of North Aurora, second – Zawlocki Family; third – Wyncoop Family of Yorkville. Non-competitive Division: The Schobert Family of Yorkville.

Youth Division: Aesthetics Awards: first place – Charlie and Xander Albertson of Yorkville; second – Spanglish 4-H Club of Kendall County; third – Nengi Fredrick and Gauri Venkatraman of Aurora. Structural Efficiency Awards: first – Spanglish 4-H Club; second – Charlie and Xander Albertson of Yorkville; third – Nengi Fredrick and Gauri Venkatraman of Aurora.

Elementary School Division Aesthetics Awards: first place – Grand Reserve Elementary School Team 2 of Yorkville; second – Grand Reserve Elementary Team 1 of Yorkville. Structural Efficiency Awards: first – Grand Reserve Elementary School Team 2; second – Grand Reserve Elementary Team 1.

Middle School Division Aesthetics Awards: first place – The Gorillas; second – Sister Squad; third – Bill Nye’s Bridge Builders, all from O’Neill Middle School in Downers Grove. Structural Efficiency Awards: first – Bill Nye’s Bridge Builders; second – The Scribes of Ebeneezer Wheezer; third – The Scribes of Hugh Neutron, all from O’Neill Middle School.

This annual event was sponsored by 4-H and University of Illinois Extension, in partnership with Rural King of Plano and the Cross Lutheran School of Yorkville, and with great appreciation to the volunteers, judges and speakers. They include: Chris Erickson, Ethan Heidrich, Brian Janus, Jeremy Metz, Austin Naekerts, Jeff Naekerts, and Dave Vick.

“We are grateful to our partners, volunteers and guests for making this annual event a great success,” Britton said. “We look forward to the event each year, and enjoy seeing youth and community members enjoy this fun, educational opportunity.”

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