Interactive bridge presentations inspire future engineers

Through the Tufts Buildable Bridges Project, sophomores Ethan Kessler and Milo Kiddugavu educate children about bridges and engineering.
Sophomores in civil engineering Milo Kiddugavu and Ethan Kessler stand on top of a model bridge during a presentation at the Stoughton Public Library.

Ethan Kessler and Milo Kiddugavu both sophomores studying civil engineering at Tufts, recently revived the Tufts Buildable Bridges Project with support from Professor of the Practice Brian Brenner. The team’s most recent initiative involved a presentation about bridges and engineering to a group of children at the Stoughton Public Library. Read on for a conversation with Kessler and Kiddugavu on the initiative and its impact on their time at Tufts.   

What is the Buildable Bridges Project?

Ethan: We design models of bridges and bring them to schools and libraries and other places where we can present them to kids. If we’re talking to elementary school kids, we keep the presentation more simple, but if we’re getting high schoolers who are already starting to apply to college, we might get a little bit more in-depth. In addition to bridges, we’re also focused on engineering as a whole. At our last presentation, we talked a little bit about classes you take to become an engineer, and different types of engineering. 

Milo: The buildable bridges project tries to bridge the gap (no pun intended!) and address the fact that engineering can seem like such a daunting discipline when you’re first looking at it and trying to apply to it in college. We really want to make it more accessible. We want to make sure that people are aware of how they can start to become engineers even before they get to college, since most high schools in the US don’t have engineering classes. 

How did you get involved with this initiative? 

Ethan: We both reached out to Professor Brenner at the beginning of this school year asking how we could get involved with bridges because we’re both interested in the topic. He brought up the idea of reviving the buildable bridges project, which he had done with students in the past. He asked if we’d want to bring it back and start going to schools again and making new models and reviving a website. 

Milo: I was interested in getting more involved with civil engineering. I was having a lot of impostor syndrome freshman year and wasn’t really getting very involved with engineering outside of my classes, so I was really interested in getting started. Professor Brenner brought up this idea and I thought it would be great to bring engineering to younger, non-collegiate students. 

What is the most surprising thing you learned while working on the Buildable Bridges Project?

Milo: While we’ve been building these bridges, we’ve spent a lot of time in the Nolop makerspace in the Science and Engineering Complex (SEC), doing woodworking to create the models. I really enjoyed doing that creative process and I feel like that’s given me more insight into the fact that I should be in civil engineering. It really shows me that this is where I want to be and this is what interests me. 

Ethan: I’ve learned how many factors need to come together to do an engineering-related task. For example, we spent almost an entire semester creating a website. I have no experience making a website and it was a lot of trial and error, but we ended up figuring it out and I think the website looks pretty good. Then also planning out how we’re going to make a bridge and creating a presentation at the same time. So just seeing all those things come together was something that I learned. 

How has your experience at Tufts informed the Buildable Bridges Project?

Milo: It was a little bit nerve-wracking at first thinking that we were presenting to a group of people that we didn’t know on something that we’re still in the process of learning. Some classes have been really helpful, including Computer Aided Design [taught by Part Time Lecturer Ryan Marshall] for modeling so that we had a plan for our bridges. When we actually stood on the bridge [during a recent presentation], creating the actual structure that made sure we weren’t going to fall or that it wouldn’t collapse became apparent from classes including Introduction to Mechanics: Statics and Dynamics [taught by Professor Masoud Sanayei] and Applied Mechanics (Strength of Materials) [taught by Professor Luis Dorfmann]. That knowledge came into play when we were designing the arches so that we knew they were structurally sound. 

Ethan: For me I think the biggest thing is presentation skills. It’s one thing to present in front of a class of your peers that you go to lunch with all the time, but it’s different to go in front of an audience where you’ve never met anybody there. It’s a really good experience and getting me more comfortable with presenting in front of my classmates and, hopefully in the future, in front of peers at jobs.

Can you share a memorable interaction you’ve had working with kids on this project?

Milo: During the presentation last month, I saw a lot of personality and raw curiosity from the children. They became very focused when working in teams of two to figure out the orientation of the blocks. It was really enjoyable to see them solving this puzzle and then watching their work pay off when various pairs stood on top of the bridge that they built themselves. While engineering is seen as a complicated discipline that requires countless hours of work to master, it was amazing to see younger kids asking questions that mirror the critical questions that professional engineers work to solve. It showed me what impressive engineers these kids could be in the future.

Ethan: There was one question a student asked that stood out to me. He was probably in elementary school, and he asked how we account for earthquakes or other natural disasters when we build bridges. It was cool to see someone so young thinking about something so complex that some of my college-level classes revolve around. I would not have been able to think of a question like that 10 years ago, so I was really impressed by the question, and it showed me that the students there were actually engaged in the presentation.

How has this experience informed your future plans?

Ethan: I’m not 100% sure what I want to do in the future. Civil engineering is a very broad field so there are a lot of options. But I do know I’m interested in structural engineering, particularly bridges, and nothing that I’ve done in this project has swayed me away from that, so it’s really just kept me interested and made me even more interested. 

Milo: I originally came into civil engineering more focused on the architectural engineering side of residential and commercial buildings as opposed to the structural side of bridges and other heavy infrastructure, but working on this project showed me that there’s a lot to learn about bridges and a lot of interest that I could find in structural engineering, so it’s brought me into the discipline. 

Learn more about the Tufts Buildable Bridges Project.