Kevin’s post a few weeks back (Model Trains, Forever) reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite place my finger on, but which I was pretty sure might be of interest to other GeekDads. It was the train simulator that kept bugging me. Finally, I remembered that there was a piece of simulator software mentioned in the fantastic activity book, A Lithgow Palooza. In the section on bridge activities, he introduces a 3D bridge construction software program from Chonic Logic called Pontifex II (renamed to the Bridge Construction Set).
The Bridge Construction Set (BCS) is basically a physics puzzle engine. Each stage presents a chasm that must be overcome with solid engineering. Using various materials, the player constructs a bridge to span the gap and then runs simulations to see if the bridge she created can hold up under load. The earlier stages run cars across your creation while later levels place heavier loads such as trucks and trains. If you are successful, the bridge doesn’t collapse from poor design and survives its load. If you aren’t, the contraption collapses embarrassingly into the chasm before or during the load test. To help make you more successful in your endeavors, the load on various parts of your bridge is color coded as stress points. If everything is fine with a section, it shows up as bright green, if not it strays towards yellow and fails at red. By repeatedly running simulations, and then using what you’ve learned to edit the design, you can take a experimental approach to success. It’s an addictive game, and I encourage everyone to at least try out the demo (available for Mac, Windows and Linux). If you like it, it will only set you back $19.95.
If you are interested in doing a little real world bridge building, the Makezine blog had a great podcast not too long ago about creating and testing the strength of Popsicle stick bridges. Either way, I think these are great ways to introduce kids to the challenges (and fun!) of engineering.