Recently I enjoyed working with my son’s Cub Scout Webelos den as they pursue their Scientist and Engineer Achievements. To satisfy part of the requirements, the boys visited the Kluber Architects + Engineers office. Their visit had two goals: to learn about bridge design and to build their own bridges.
With supplies of gumdrops and toothpicks in hand, following a brief lesson on structural design, the boys went to work. Initially, I had intended to impose a number of requirements and restrictions on the bridge designs and have the boys compete to see whose bridge could hold the most load. However, the boys’ creativity and imagination quickly took over and my competition plans were scrapped. As their designs began to take shape, I could see that they would be better served by my allowing their individuality to drive the exercise. The results were unexpected for a group of 5th grade boys and, upon reflection, a valuable learning exercise for both me and the boys.
Ultimately, the designs varied so widely that I was able to teach the kids far more about design, construction efficiency and the importance of innovation and creativity by commenting on each of their unique designs than I would have been able to otherwise.
Jack’s design was the epitome of strength and rigidity, with a number of redundant members that created factors of safety that would make a structural engineer proud. Mike’s bridge, at the opposite end of the spectrum, was austere and minimalist, which demonstrated the importance of limited budgets in design and construction. Andrew took full advantage of his bridge’s surroundings by driving his toothpicks into the fiberboard that made up part of the abutments I provided for his bridge, to gain additional strength and stability for his solution. Noah’s trussed solution leveraged the shallow depression that had to be spanned by incorporating intermediate support points along the span, and his economical solution was also one of the strongest. Jason had one of the most attractive and symmetrical truss-type designs, which spoke highly of his workmanship and attention to detail, yet it was still functional and supported load well. Patrick’s bridge was a sturdy arch-type design that made exceptional use of the sturdy abutments provided; an excellent example of a solution that responds to and takes advantage of site conditions. The boys’ ingenuity and creativity truly impressed me. What I intended to be a simple competition focused on the single goal of withstanding an imposed load turned out to be so much more.
Such surprising results reinforce and validate the belief held at Kluber Architects + Engineers that it is not our job to bring our egos to the table when we set out on the task of designing for our clients. Our job is to listen, synthesize and respond to what we hear. The key is to lead by gently guiding the design process, not controlling it. When we do this, the results that are achieved can rise far above initial expectations.