Sault College Bridge Building contest draws plenty of interest

Sault College held its annual Bridge Building Competition Friday.

More than 300 students from close to 20 schools built bridges of balsa wood, hoping their bridge design could withstand enough stress to emerge victorious.

Participants from grade four to grade 12 competed against their peers. There was also an open category for younger or older contestants.

Bridges were scored based on a load to weight ratio to encourage students to use their materials efficiently. On the line were cash prizes and some bragging rights. 

The event was live-streamed beginning at 9:45, Friday morning.

Organizer Marc Pilon, P.Eng Professor/Coordinator of Civil Engineering and Construction at Sault College, says as usual, enthusiasm was high for this year’s edition, marked by some cool – and sturdy – designs.

“Balsa wood kits sold out in less than 12 hours this year and we received some very impressive bridges,” said Pilon, in a post-contest release. “We appreciate all the classrooms that participated, and hope students enjoyed this engaging, hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activity,” Pilon added. 

You can see some of the bridges being put to the stress test in this video:

The competition dates back at least 30 years, says Pilon, who entered the competition himself as a youngster. It allows young students to get creative. The multiple age levels leaves plenty of room to build on early experience in the event. 

“A lot of these students, in the fourth and fifth grades, it’s their very first time building their bridges,” said Pilon. “They’re really just trying to figure it out. They’re focusing on actually getting their team to work.

After that point, the students start to learn from their bridges. We see students every year in grades 10, 11 and 12 that have submitted an entry every single year since grade four.”

Bridges are tested on a hydraulic cylinder that is pumped by Pilon. At the very end of it is a load cell which goes to a digital readout display.

“We have the ability to essentially test with a concentrated load in the centre of the structure, and it reads out what the resistance to that is. As I’m pumping it down, as soon as (the bridge) loses resistance, or fails structurally, I stop.”

Pilon is asked if there’s a particular entry from past years that carried a real Wow! factor. We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘a bridge too far’, but how about a bridge too strong? 

“Back in 2017 or 2018, we had an old rule when it came to length.” Pilon recalled. “The old rule bridges had to be 45 cm. Having a shorter span, you had stronger bridges. One year we had a bridge so strong it actually bent the plate that comes into the load cell. We had to break in to the automotive shop here – it was the weekend – to bend the plate back into shape.” 

That near-unbeatable bridge prompted a rule change that remains to this day, requiring that contest bridges be 50 cm in length. 

“Now I don’t have to worry about anything happening to my machine,” Pilon muses.

Bridges must also be a minimum of four cm wide, and between 10 and 25 cm’s tall.

The competition began with the youngest students and progressed upward, wrapping up early Friday afternoon.

Students who placed top 10 in each category were awarded a cash prize ranging from $200 for first place to $20 for tenth. 

“We’ve increased the cash prizes over the past couple of years just to make it more attractive for students to participate,” says Pilon. “Not that we had poor participation, but this is an event that’s primarily funded through Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) and we run it as a cash-neutral event. The funding we get for the event, we just try to break even. As the years go by we get more efficient in how we run it and it saves on costs and we give the money back to students through the prizes.”

The top three finishers of each category for the 2024 Bridge Building Competition, Friday at Sault College:

Grade 4/5:

1st : Payton Levesque, Tarentorus

2nd: Abby Ricica, Blind River Public School

3rd: Nate Vine, Hunter Torkok , Thessalon Public School

Grade 6-8:

1st: Sawyer Mason, Tarentorus 

2nd: Matthew Kresin, Korah Collegiate & Vocational School
3rd: Gianluca Gioia, Barrett Maracie, Korah Collegiate & Vocational School

Grade 9-12:

1st: Leah Biemann, St. Mary’s College

2nd: Shawn Gilbert, Michipicoten

3rd: Grace Hubbard, Michipicoten

Other award winners:

Construction Award: Aubrey McColman and Hillary-Anne Scheepmaker, Grade 5, Thessalon Public School

Engineering Award: Dean MacMillan, Grade 10, Korah Collegiate & Vocational School

Architecture Award: Matthew Kresin, Grade 7, Korah Collegiate & Vocational School


  • Ron Jokelainen

    Ron has returned to writing and reporting after 27 years with Ontario Lottery & Gaming. He began as a staff writer with OLG in 1994 before moving to Sports Marketing in 1997. He retired as a Senior sports analyst in 2021. Prior to OLG, Ron worked in radio and print journalism in the Sault and Simcoe. Folks may remember Ron "Williams" with CFYN-CHAS in the early 90s A graduate of Windsor's St. Clair College Journalism program, Ron lists drumming, gardening and walking among his favourite hobbies.

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