St. Thomas class uses 35W bridge pieces to educate future engineers

The 35W bridge collapse was one of the worst disasters in Minnesota history, killing 13 and injuring 145. It still looms large at one local university, both inside and outside the classroom.

On the campus of the University of St. Thomas sit two parts of the old 35W bridge.

But these pieces from the past are helping educate the engineers of the future.

"I just think it’s an amazing monument to an amazing failure really," Engineering professor Katherine Acton said.

Acton teaches "Mechanics Of Materials" to sophomore engineering students.

She uses the bridge collapse to help them relate to some of the basic concepts of the class like engineering stresses and the ductile failure of metals.

"I always ask my students for a show of hands who drove over that bridge in their lifetime and most of the students raise their hands. I think it's personal for them, and they're motivated to learn all the factors that led up to the collapse," Acton said.

The National Transportation Safety Board eventually said a design flaw involving a gusset plate that was too thin probably caused the collapse 10 years ago.

So Acton's students use a computer model of the gusset plate to look at the pressures that caused it to fail.

"I think it’s important we talk about it and keep learning from it...that we understand how to avoid having this happen in the future," Acton said.

Eventually, the twisted metal will be part of a display that engineering students walk by every day.

Both will remind them of the responsibility they have to keep the public safe and what can happen when things go wrong.

"A lot has been said about the tragedy, and it was a terrible thing that happened. But if there is something good that can come out of it, it should be the education of our students and our future engineers," Acton said.

Professor Acton says about 100 students take her class every year, and they'll be back in session around the first week in September.