Last Bridge Standing

By Marcia Faye

The next time you drive across the IL-104 River Bridge over the Illinois River in Meredosia, Illinois, thank Sasha Bajzek (CE ’11) for your safe passage. She designed the steel plate girders, steel details, joints, and bearings for the structure’s nine approach spans, each at 140 to 200 feet in length. Bajzek won her first bridge building competition at Tinley Park High School and then went on to win a first-place slot in the 2005 Chicago Regional Bridge Building Contest and first place overall in the International Bridge Building Contest, earning a half-tuition scholarship to attend Illinois Tech. [Read the story about the 2018 Chicago Bridge Building Contest on page 5.] Now a structural engineer with Parsons Corporation, Bajzek shared information about her winning student design and thoughts on why the contests remain relevant today:

Sasha Bajzek
Sasha Bajzek (CE ’11) adding weights to her entry in the 2005 International Bridge Building Contest.
Photo: Courtesy of Sasha Bajzek
Bridge Building Competition
The A-frame winning bridge
Photo: Courtesy of Sasha Bajzek
As a high school pontist, what interested you specifically about participating in a bridge building contest?
I love creating things and solving problems. We had to build a bridge for my physics class, and I was fascinated that something so light could hold so much weight. My winning bridge weighed about the same as four nickels but could hold more than 200 pounds. I can’t even come close to picking up 200 pounds! I wanted to learn more about the engineering behind it, and it became very addicting trying to get each bridge to hold more. My bridge was an A-frame design. I got the idea looking at one of the work benches in my parents’ basement. My winning bridge weighed 0.044 pounds and supported 207 pounds, for a total efficiency of 4,738.
Did you learn something from participating in the contests that helped you in your career?
The thing I learned from the contests that has stuck with me the most in my career is tenacity. I built 20 test bridges to perfect my design, learning from each one what I could do to make my bridge stronger and lighter. I use that tenacity every day as an engineer. I work to make things as efficient as possible, which involves a lot of learning from mistakes and keeping at things until you achieve a great design.
Why does the contest continue to be relevant more than 40 years after its founding?
The contest teaches students about physics and engineering, which are present everywhere in the world. It takes learning about compression and tension in structural members out of textbook learning and into the physical world so students can better connect to the concepts. It also demonstrates the importance of iteration in engineering design with the best designs having been proven through many test runs.
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