Engineering students bike to study bridges


MEAM professor put together the first Annual MEAM Bicycle Bridge Tour


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Sunday morning, professor Bruce Kothmann brought his classroom outdoors and taught his class on wheels.

Forty Penn engineers mounted their bikes at Fairmont Park, a half-hour walk away from campus, for a tour of the bridges that run across the Schuylkill River.

Kothmann, a mechanical engineering and applied mechanics lecturer, wanted to show his students how mechanical engineering principles they learn in class can be observed in the design and structure of the bridges in Philadelphia.

At each of the eight bridges the group stopped at, Kothmann brought out laminated slides, photos and made demonstrations to better explain the engineering aspects of the bridges as students looked on, stationed in a semicircle around the professor.

Many bridges in the area are significant in civil engineering history. The Chain Bridge is widely believed to be the first wire-cable suspension bridge in history. In 1809, said Kothmann, the Chain Bridge collapsed and today, the Spider Bridge stands in its place.

Kothmann, who specializes in aeronautics, gained his understanding about bridges through labs in the MEAM department, online research and personal experience.

A couple years ago, he was biking along the Schuylkill with his family when he noticed how clearly the bridges’ construction and structure could be seen from underneath, along the bike path.

“I realized I should get students to see this because it seems [fun],” Kothmann said. After some research last year, he put together the first Annual MEAM Bicycle Bridge Tour.

With the help of PennCycle — a new campus bike-sharing project launched in March — who gave the group a special discount, and Fairmount Bicycles, the tour provided enough bikes for everyone who attended.

“I didn’t know what to expect — a tour about bridges?” Engineering sophomore Shoshana Yaffee said. “I just thought it would be fun and interesting to meet people.”

In one of Kothmann’s courses, Engineering sophomore Alfredo Muniz was exposed to the wonder of bridges through textbooks. He thought the outdoors bike tour — the second annual tour Kothmann has organized — was a good way to introduce students to statics and mechanics in a fun way.

This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of the mechanical engineering and applied mechanics department.

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