ST. ALBANS — Can you build a bridge with just paper and paper clips? How about an edible car? How would you reinforce a strip of plastic sheeting with just string and masking tape?

Local seventh and eight graders were put to the test Wednesday as part of Northwest Technical Center’s first-ever Tech and Engineering Day. About 100 students from St. Albans City School, St. Albans Town Educational Center (SATEC) and Missisquoi Valley Union Middle and & High School (MVU) participated in the event organized by both NWTC and Superior Technical Ceramics.

Following an engineering panel discussion in the morning with STC, IBM and local high school, college and workforce representatives, students got to the fun part of the day: building and testing stuff.

In one classroom, NWTC co-op coordinator Jim Naylor instructed students on the rules for building their bridge.

“Your task is to build a bridge that spans 20 centimeters and supports the weight of as many pennies as possible,” said Naylor. Students started out with two textbooks to place their bridge on (no attaching allowed), a piece of paper and five paperclips. They received a package with instructions and “money” to buy more materials, such as scissors, tape, more paper and paperclips.

The goal, said Naylor, was for the groups of students to work together, be cost efficient, and build a sturdy bridge.

“I think it’s common for people to just get in and want to build it really fast,” Naylor told the students. “You’ve got to take time and plan it out.”’

In the Building Trades garage just across the parking lot, students had already spent time constructing their apparatus – an edible car made of Rice Krispies, chocolate, marshmallow, cookies, noodles and fruit rollups, graham crackers and lifesavers – and were reveling in the excitement of testing them out.

Each car was put at the top of an eight-foot ramp with a four-foot board at the end. If all went well, the car made it over both and then some, rolling with the cheers of the onlooking students.

While waiting for his turn, MVU seventh grader Ethan Kelleher explained the car building process.

“We looked at some designs,” he said. “Then we pretty much drew out ideas after that.”

Students had several sessions over several days to build their cars. Were they allowed to eat any of the materials?

“If they were broken,” said Kelleher.

City School innovation specialist Matt Allen said that through this project, students had the chance to do a lot of exploring.

“It was a lot of trial and error,” he said. They would test things and share ideas with each other.”

In addition to helping develop critical thinking skills, Allen said the engineering competition was getting students excited about engineering.

“I love any teaching that does something like this,” said Allen. “Anytime you can get them to be excited about learning.”

There was a similar amount of enthusiasm in another classroom in the NWTC basement, where more middle schoolers were trying to reinforce a several-foot strip of plastic sheeting with tape and string.

“Team Great” – made up of MVU eighth graders Sophie Yandow, Zoey Brosky and Reghan Overton – had tried poking holes in their sheeting, weaving the string through, and then reinforcing the whole thing with tape.

Robert Bettis, another MVU eighth grade student with a different team, tried a different technique where string was the main component.

“We made an X and we tied it around [the strip],” he said. “To reinforce it up and down, we just layered it with tape.” The goal, said Bettis, was for the string to take the force instead of the plastic.

“I came up with the X idea,” he said.

All teams tested their material by attaching it to a ladder and, on the bottom, adding hanging weights of one, two or five kilograms. Most held 16 or 17 kilograms, though one reinforced strip took all the weights – all 34 kilograms worth – and held them for a minute before stretching and breaking.

“Holy crap!” was the general reaction.

As he watched students work, SATEC teacher Keith Peterson said that this event was an opportunity for his students was to try things they wouldn’t necessarily do in the classroom.

“We’re just letting them come in and see how they can think outside of the box,” he said. “There’s a lot of teamwork, and they’re having fun.”

Peterson added, “I’m seeing some of the kids that may be a little more reluctant to participate coming forward.”

In addition to allowing students an opportunity to explore, Tech and Engineering Day was a chance for NWTC programs to gain some exposure with local middle schoolers.

Bettis, for instance, said he sees engineering in his future. “I like solving problems – it’s kind of like a puzzle,” he said. “It makes people’s lives better [too].”

Before yesterday, he didn’t know anything about engineering programs at NWTC. “I didn’t even know it existed,” Bettis said.

NWTC Engineering Technology instructor Doug Bell said it was helpful to see which students he might have coming into his class, to talk to them about the prerequisites they would need, and, of course, to see students’ excitement.

“It’s awesome,” said Bell. “I am sitting here right now talking with kids and they are just so engaged and excited.”

He added, “You can’t ask for more from education. And the teachers are having a good time, too.”

According to head organizer and NWTC outreach coordinator Agnieszka Gagne, fun, education and a chance for kids to show what they got is the point of Tech and Engineering Day, and it is expected to continue in the future.

“We have awesome kids here,” Gagne said. The goal next year, she said, is to get all the schools in the Franklin Central Supervisory Union to participate, and perhaps in years to come, all seventh and eighth graders in the county to be a part of the day.

As for those in attendance yesterday, the day appeared to be a success. At the end of the first of two competition rounds, SATEC eighth grader Haven Zada was just putting the last of 165 pennies on his teams bridge when, finally giving into the weight, it collapsed.

Their strategy? “It was to pack as much as we could in one tiny ramp and then paper clip it,” said Zada.

That $1.65 was good enough for second place and feeling of accomplishment.

“You guys all did a great job,” Naylor told the room as the students cleaned up their bridges and headed onto their next challenge.