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Civil engineering students bridge the gap

Bridge building
A student-built bridge collapses as a third person reaches it centre in the University of Canterbury’s annual bridge-building competition.
PHOTOS: Daniela Maoate-Cox

Flimsy fibre-board and glue are often the only things keeping students from a swim in the river at the University of Canterbury’s annual bridge-building competition.

Civil engineering student Jaime Clark said the rules required each bridge to hold two people, but no more — it must break when a third person reaches the middle.

“That’s the difficult thing and that’s what the calculations are all about. We’ve got holes drilled where it’s supposed to fail.”

Thirty teams of students tested out their bridge-building skills on the campus banks of the Avon River, with Golden Gate replicas and Red Bull-inspired bridges among the designs.

“There have been some people who have just stepped on to the first plank and it’s just broken or it just completely buckles in a way they didn’t think of,” Clark said.

Students spent several weeks designing and building the bridges in teams of six to understand the building process, and not just design.

Structural engineering lecturer, Dr Alessandro Palermo said the bridges had to be innovative and look good.

“Most of these bridges are not the traditional bridges you see when you drive around the country,” he said. “For example, the Red Bull bridge was a very complex structure. It had a combination of designs and that is unusual to see.”

bridge building 2
Engineering students carry their Red Bull-inspired bridge to the competition at the University of Canterbury.

Palermo said he was amazed by the designs and learned something new from the event every year.

“We had stronger bridges this year. Some failed with six or seven people, which in a sense is better than having a bridge that fails with one or two people.

“The amazing thing is that every year you see something different. The red bull bridge was one of the best bridges I’ve ever seen.”

Bridge building has been a part of civil engineering at the University of Canterbury for 20 years and Palermo said it was unique to the university.

“I googled and YouTube searched other universities, even top universities like Berkeley, and they do something far smaller than what we do,” he said. “Even the university of Auckland only does spaghetti testing, but we have the space, facilities and resources.”

About 200 students took part this year with nearly the same number of spectators lining the river banks. Its growing popularity may mean the event moves to the inner city in 2015.

_Daniela Maoate-Cox