UL-Lafayette gears up for bridge-building battle

High schoolers test engineering skills at UL-Lafayette

Foam boards, glue guns and Styrofoam littered the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Oliver Hall this week as high school students from around Acadiana battled for bridge-building supremacy at this year’s Gear Up engineering camp.

The three-day camp, hosted by UL-Lafayette’s civil engineering program, challenges high school students to build a bridge out of high-strength Styrofoam and hot glue that can hold at least 1,500 pounds.

“They love it,” said UL-Lafayette civil engineering graduate student and camp mentor Jacob Benton. “They’re learning and they don’t even know they’re learning.”

The brainchild of UL-Lafayette professor Chris Carroll, Ph.D., the engineering camp seeks to encourage high school students to study engineering in college by showing them what engineers actually do.

Carencro High School junior Cory Lafleur is a fifth-year veteran of the camp.

“I really do like designing and building our projects. I love that,” he said. “But I think my favorite part is probably hanging out with the grad students and learning from them. Not only just (learning about) engineering but what to expect from college.”

The 17-year-old said he plans to study civil engineering at UL-Lafayette after graduating high school.

Carroll said he always has been interested in working with K-12 students to promote engineering.

“We’re trying to show them that it’s fun and that there’s application to it,” he said.

Carroll joked about the old adage of teachers telling their students they’ll use the math and science they learn in the classroom one day.

“We want to show them that this is a toolbox for us,” he said. “Math and science are tools for us to design and build things.”

After learning some engineering basics, the students were tasked with a math-based scavenger hunt in which the students scoured UL-Lafayette’s campus to find clues to learn different engineering and design calculations.

“They’re so involved with trying to get themselves to the next clue and trying to get the best time,” Benton said. “They’re learning all these concepts that college students don’t learn until their second or third year, and they’re learning it as high school students and they don’t even realize it yet.”

As they made their way through the hunt, each location would give them a new problem to solve. Solving the problem would not only reveal the location of the next clue but also yield information on how to make their bridge better with engineering principles.

“You get a lot of competitive kids that want to have the quickest times,” Carroll said.

The students applied what they learned by building practice beams Tuesday and Wednesday morning so they could experiment with different shapes before working on their final project. The beams were required to hold at least 150 pounds.

Once the beams were built, the students applied what they learned to building the final project: an 8-foot-long, 48-inch-wide bridge a maximum of 20 inches deep.

The camp’s bridge-building competition, which started Wednesday afternoon and ended Thursday, forced students to think of such projects in economic terms.

The amount of time it took to complete each part of the process was added up in dollars. The teams were “charged” overtime when they took too long for certain parts of the building process. They also were charged for the amount of materials they used.

If the bridge failed to hold the required weight, the team was hit with a “lawsuit,” which cost them part of their budget. Students also had to think about efficiency and only to build the bridge to hold the weight it needed.

Carroll called the system “competition-based learning.”

“I want them to see that when you get out in the real world, you’re not just handed a project,” he said. “You’re competing; you’re bidding for these projects. I want to bring that to life to them.”

Carroll said he hopes campers walk away with a better understanding of his profession.

“Too many times, you go to a school and ask, ‘What does an engineer do?’ and you get, ‘They build things,’ ” he said. “There’s a little more to it than that. I want them to understand the design processes and get a feel for how math and science is applied to all the things that they see.”

Carroll said the camps double as a great local recruiting tool for the College of Engineering.

“Some of these kids have been coming for five years,” Carroll said. “They’ve developed these skills, and that’s the type of students we want.”

The camp is part of GEAR UP, an initiative by the Lafayette Parish School System to encourage high school students to start thinking about college.