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Lansing, MI - Michigan middle and high school students demonstrated top-notch engineering skills as teams from around the state took seven of the top nine places in a national bridge-building competition event in Maine this week.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) had its 15th Annual TRAC Bridge Challenge competition May 23-24 in Portland, Maine. Teams build miniature bridges using balsa wood, glue and string, which are then tested for strength and design. Teams also make detailed presentations about their bridges before a panel of judges.

Eighteen teams competed this year, selected from more than 250 applicants from across the country. Team members were all participants in one of AASHTO's educational outreach programs TRAC (Transportation and Civil Engineering), for high school students, and RIDES (Roadways In Developing Elementary Students).

The competition's goal is to develop a bridge that will carry as much weight as possible while weighing as little as possible. Students compete in separate age categories: grades 7-8, 9-10, and 11-12. Michigan teams took first place honors in all three age categories and secured seven of the nine top spots.

"Michigan's success in this competition shows the rest of the country what we already knew about our students. They are creative problem solvers with a passion for building things," said State Transportation Director Kirk Steudle. "We are pleased to support this program, investing in the future and continuing a tradition of developing talented engineers in Michigan."

Even before the competition started, Michigan teams excelled, said Julie VanPortfliet, who manages the TRAC program for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). Out of the 18 national slots, eight went to Michigan teams.

"I am so proud of our Michigan students," VanPortfliet said. "We started the initial stages of the bridge challenge process in October with 2,439 Michigan students and ended in Maine with 24 of those students."

After two days of tours and educational events, including a field trip to the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory, the groups got down to competition on Tuesday. Each bridge was checked to see how well its design adhered to the rules. The bridges were then weighed and strength-tested to calculate strength-to-weight ratio. The Negaunee team's first place-winning bridge (11-12th grade division) held 254 pounds, while weighing in at just 26 grams, for an incredible strength-to-weight ratio of 4,440.4-to-1.

This year's competition was sponsored by Bentley Systems, Michael Baker International, PECG, HDR, HNTB, IRD, Transystems, NCSPA, ADS, Volkert, Cambridge Systematics, Transpo Industries, and Housman and Associates. Schools participate in the TRAC and RIDES programs through a partnership with their state department of transportation.

"AASHTO and its industry partners understand that if America is going to stay competitive, more young people must get involved in engineering," said Linda Clifton, AASHTO TRAC and RIDES manager. "The TRAC and RIDES programs and this annual competition are both incentives and opportunities for students to learn about the transportation industry and apply the math and science skills they learn in the classroom — out here in the real world."

TRAC has several facets: in addition to the annual bridge completion, it's an outreach program for high school and middle school students, giving their teachers curriculum enhancements to demonstrate engineering and transportation principles. Then there's the internship program, which offers 20 or so students statewide an opportunity to work for MDOT during the summer. VanPortfliet said many students have found hands-on, real-world learning was the key to their academic career.

"I've been involved with the TRAC program for years and it has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me," VanPortfliet said. "I've witnessed situations where kids have used TRAC and gained the confidence that they needed to go to college and be successful."

TRAC's ultimate goal is to encourage kids to pursue engineering and other science-related fields. With a projected shortage of engineers in the U.S. workforce over the next 10 years, VanPortfliet said this program will not only benefit the young people participating, but the future of MDOT and the entire state. "With students like this, I have no doubt that Michigan will have a very bright future," she said.

2017 Annual TRAC Bridge Challenge winners

11-12th Grade Division
First place: Negaunee High School, Negaunee, Michigan
Second place: Moss Point Career and Tech, Moss Point, Mississippi
Third place: Annapolis High School, Dearborn Heights, Michigan

9-10th Grade Division
First place: Kat Homeschool, Portage, Michigan
Second place: Northville High School, Northville, Michigan
Third place: Brandon High School, Ortonville, Michigan

7-8th Grade Division
First place: Meads Mill Middle School, Northville, Michigan
Second place: Da Vinci Academy, Davis, California
Third place: Portage Central Middle School, Portage, Michigan