The finals of the National Bridge Building Competition was held at the St George Hotel in Doornkloof, Pretoria on 27 August 2021. The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) initiated the bridge building competition more than 29 years ago to further high school learners’ use of mathematics and science in an engineering context to grow the profession. It has since become an enormous success and is enjoyed by learners across the country. The sponsors were Peri, WBHO, BVi, JG Afrika, RiChem and SAASTA, without which this competition could not succeed.
Schools came from as far afield as Bloemfontein, Durban, Ermelo, Kimberley, Pietermaritzburg, Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) and Cape Town to fight for the much sought-after trophy and cash prizes for the winners.
The bridges, adjudicated by a panel of engineers, were judged according to a system where aesthetics consisting of design, correctness and aesthetics accounted for 30% of the total and the weight of the bridge and its weight carrying capacity making up the rest.
The teams, after having exchanged daytime T-shirts and tracksuits for school uniforms, gathered for an evening of nerve-racking testing of their bridges. Before the destruction, each team had to give a briefing on how the pandemic of the past year and a half influenced their design. Excitement mounted, hopes soared and some dreams were shattered as one team after the other brought their bridges forward for testing on the rigg. Each and every team’s bridge was tested to destruction to ascertain its weight-bearing capability.
The winning school was HTS Kimberley with a bridge weighing 162g which collapsed carrying a weight of 162.5kg! Their aesthetics point was 46.5. Their total points were 247.1. Brackenfell High School from Cape Town came second with a bridge weighing 135g which failed at 111.9kg. They had an extremely high aesthetics point of 58.5 and their total points came to 224.3. Hoërskool Jim Fouché from Bloemfontein was third with their bridge weighing 149g and carrying a load of 126.1kg before breaking. Their aesthetics point was 36.0 and their final points were 205.3.
Because of its practical and hands-on nature, this event is SAICE’s most successful initiative in attracting learners from previously disadvantaged rural schools, previous model C schools and private schools to civil engineering, as well as promoting a general awareness of the profession. This competition provides a career guidance opportunity and gives pupils the chance to also build bridges between people.
The regional branches of SAICE organised the local bridge building competitions in their areas. The National Bridge Building Competition finals, organised by the SAICE National Office, annually brings the winners of the branch competitions to a venue in Pretoria. Interestingly, the bridge building competition forms an integral part of some schools’ activities and is recognised at the same level as academic or sports achievements.
The bridge building teams consisted of three learners each. They built model bridges from dowel sticks, glue and string, according to a technical briefing. This event culminated in a bridge testing ceremony to determine the winners. Attendees were representatives of the sponsors, parents and members of SAICE.
All the teams arrived on the Thursday before the competition.
On the Friday morning of the competition, an informative presentation by an engineer, Glen Hockley from PERI on the stresses and strains to be taken into account when designing a bridge, preceded the action. The team members represented learners from Grades 9 to 12.
The bridge building kits contained 25 sticks of 3mm nominal thickness, glue and some string. Construction was done according to a technical briefing. The teams got down to the gruelling business of planning, designing, measuring, cutting dowel sticks and constructing the bridge by gluing everything together to form sturdy bridge structures, while racing against the clock towards tools-down time! This year three Meranti sticks, which are much stronger than the rest of the pine sticks, were included in the kits — to see where the teams would apply them in their designs. The Sponsors also took up the challenge on the morning, to construct a bridge with the same equipment and found it, in their own words, not as easy as it looks.
The meticulously constructed bridges were left to dry for a few hours. The adjudicators then completed their task regarding the aesthetics and weight of the bridges. During the evening event the bridges were tested to destruction. Some of these flimsy bridges carried unexpectedly heavy weights!
During the prize giving Vishaal Lutchman, a civil engineer and CEO of SAICE, encouraged the teams to consider civil engineering as a career as they could contribute immensely to the development of service infrastructure, and they could help to develop communities in South Africa. He emphasised that they could also build bridges between people in the country. Many of the current engineers in South Africa had their first taste of civil engineering during this important competition!