The Black Hawk Bridge in 1:236 scale

By Jennifer Bissell

Eastern Allamakee senior Tyson Cota thought his physics project of building a bridge would be used to test how much weight it could withstand and later destroy.

Eastern Allamakee senior Tyson Cota thought his physics project of building a bridge would be used to test how much weight it could withstand and later destroy. Instead, his replica of the Blackhawk Bridge spanning the Mississippi River in Lansing has become a well-known project that will be put on display. 

The assignment
Allison Fitzwater is Cota’s physics teacher. She’s been with the district for 12 years. Cota is the only student currently enrolled in physics. 
The lesson plan was about vector forces and how much load can be handled. Fitzwater challenged Cota to build something and then model how much weight it could hold.
Cota first looked at building bridges to destroy them. His original idea was to build a couple different models to see how they can hold weight differently. However, his idea changed to building one single bridge – a model of the famous Blackhawk Bridge. 
“The Lansing Bridge has always interested me. The steel grate deck seems odd and the fact that the middle of it doesn’t have any support underneath it but it can still hold all that weight,” said Cota. 
Cota said he started by looking at photos of the bridge on his phone and printing out a picture to reference as he started building. Fitzwater got Cota supplies – a box of 1,000 popsicle sticks, a gallon of wood glue, a few glue sticks and a hot glue gun. 
Cota took five to six weeks to build the majority of the replica. In total, it ended up as a roughly 1:236 scale of the bridge, spanning roughly 7 feet and using just under 900 popsicle sticks.  
However, it became more than a project to test vector forces. “I’m not surprised at all with his project. I guess I had no clue how big it would end up being as a project. I thought it would take a couple weeks to pound out the whole thing, but it took a little longer than that. But it also turned out better than I could have planned. We inadvertently learned a lot,” said Fitzwater. 

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Life of its own
Cota still has some finishing touches to make on the project. He finished priming it before Christmas break and has plans to paint it, as well as put water underneath it. While the original plans called for potentially damaging it to test how much weight it can hold, Cota said that plan has been put on hold.
On Dec. 2, Fitzwater, who also manages the school district’s social media platforms, posted Cota’s project on Facebook. It instantly became a hit, with nearly 150 likes and two dozen comments. On Instagram, it received over 70 likes. She said aside from posts about the sports teams, this is the highest performing post.
“Its reach has far exceeded the population of our school district and all the comments have been very positive,” said Fitzwater. 
“A lot of people that I wouldn’t even expect have said something. My family, my grandparents, have all said it’s a nice bridge I’ve built. Even people I don’t know are telling me my bridge project is awesome,” said Cota. “I didn’t think it would get to that many people.”

Bigger lessons
For Cota, his model project became more than the original plan. “For one thing, I learned how to use a mini hot glue gun,” he joked. “Actually, I learned what goes into construction and how many different little parts you might not even realize there are when you look at the bridge.”
For Fitzwater, the project also demonstrated more than its original intent. 
“He learned about scale and tolerance and how every popsicle stick isn’t the same size and how it can be translated,” she said. “He learned about level and if it’s really level or right and how to adjust for that and how assembly works with vector forces. He tried to make the whole bridge linear because the matching for pitching the bridge correctly is way out of scope of the force.
“I saw a lot of hard work and a lot of determination and attention to detail. Tyson is an excellent academic student and has a lot of internal drive. He will sit and absolutely every day just plug away at it to get it done.”

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On display
Once the project is completed, Fitzwater said she’d love to see it used as a fundraising tool and then placed on display at the school. 
“We’re going to turn it into a display piece. We’d like to do something like an auction, much like a gun auction where you auction off a gun but the winner doesn’t take it,” she explained. 
Cota is the son of Jeff and Melissa Cota. After graduation this spring, Cota plans to attend the University of Northern Iowa to pursue a degree in real estate to eventually become a residential appraiser. 

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