John "Jay" Howson, a junior at Phoenixville Area High School.
Achievement: Howson, 17, won the Southeastern Pennsylvania Regional Bridge Building Competition, earning himself a spot in the international competition, held last weekend in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Howson's bridge earned him 14th place among 54 contestants.
Question: Take us through the process of designing your bridge, from when you first thought of it to the finished product.
Answer: I drew up a couple of different ideas, and I did some physics, and plugged it into a program called AutoCAD, a mechanical drawing program that lets you design things. It (AutoCAD) gives you the angles, the lengths, and how tall you should make it (the bridge). I ended up building 20 or 30 bridges until I figured out which one was the best. It's built out of basswood, it's a very lightweight, very flexible wood. The wood is 3/32 of an inch by 3/32 of an inch thick, very thin, maybe like two toothpicks.
Q: How are the bridges judged?
A: We put them on a gap between two pieces of wood. We take a loading block and put an eye-bolt on the bridge (a hook attached to little metal square that sits on top of the bridge; a bucket hangs from underneath where weights are stacked, testing the strength of the bridge). It took us under five minutes to actually break it.
Q: So the bridge you built for the regional competition wasn't the same one you used in Chicago?
A: Yeah, I ended up building a couple more, just to see if I could make it a little better. I ended up mailing my bridge in, just in case I didn't arrive on time, which was good, because we [Jay and his dad, John] ended up not landing until five minutes before check-in time was over. Also, my prom was the night before, so we had to leave at 6 a.m. Saturday. I was running on about 36 hours of no sleep.
Q: Was it kind of a downer to put all that work into the bridge, and then have it destroyed?
A: No, it was exciting. That was the best part. It's fun to watch your bridge and see how much you can put on it. If my bridge had only held five pounds after all that work, that would have been depressing.
Q: How much did it hold?
A: It held 49 kilograms (a little more than 108 pounds). We were judged on efficiency, how much weight the bridge held compared to how much it actually weighed. My bridge held 2,179 times its weight.
Q: So what else did you and your dad do in Chicago?
A: We went to the Adler Planetarium. Right now (April 30) we are waiting to go visit the University of Wisconsin's engineering department at Madison. It'll be a two-hour drive.
Q: Is this an interest that could develop into a profession down the road?
A: I know I want to be an engineer. I want to go into nuclear engineering, which is why I'm visiting Wisconsin; they have a great nuclear engineering program.
Q: Any other interests?
A: I'm really into physics, and I love to rock-climb. I like electricity; I built a giant Tesla coil (a type of transformer). I was just bored, so I decided to build one. It produces about a million bolts of electricity. It's pretty cool. I keep it in my basement.