FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. -- "Do you see the bars and tubes of the bridge? See the joints?" Greenbrier East High School physics and chemistry teacher Barbara McElwain asked students as she pointed to the metal beams under the New River Gorge Bridge Friday afternoon.
The 45 middle and high school students from across West Virginia who walked along the narrow catwalk directly beneath the bridge deck know all about a bridge's structure, as they make up the top 20 virtual bridge-building teams in the state.
On this sunny afternoon, the students walked about 870 feet above the New River and touched the cold metal, felt the bridge shake and heard cars whizzing by above them.
The students, between the ages of 13 and 18, will compete Saturday in the West Virginia Statewide West Point Bridge Design Contest at Marshall University.
This is the 13th year for the statewide contest. A national West Point Bridge Design contest also is held annually.
The competition, sponsored by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., provides students with a realistic, engaging introduction to engineering, bridges and transportation through Internet-based bridge-designing software.
Students use the computer program to design the least expensive bridge that a truck could cross without causing the bridge to collapse.
West Point released the new software -- which is updated each year -- in January and students had until March 25 to submit their designs.
Nearly 300 West Virginia students submitted designs to the national competition. During the national semifinal round on April 5, 17 of the 40 teams remaining were from West Virginia.
Nick Bartusiak, 16, of Shady Spring High School, and Aniket Zinzuwadia, 17, of Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley, won the final round for the second year in a row, which makes them the only team in the nation to win back-to-back contests.
The pair constructed a bridge that "cost" $247,537 and each took home a $10,000 scholarship and a laptop for the second straight year.
The high school juniors credited their success to teamwork and a personal interest in math and science.
"We make a good team because we complement each other. I'm more of a numbers guy and Nick is good at application," Zinzuwadia said. "When I figure out a design, he helps me implement it. We're both really interested in how science is applied to the real world and wanted to take it to another level."
Zinzuwadia said many people didn't expect the two to win because "we're from West Virginia, [and] we can't win a national contest."
Not only did they twice prove those opinions wrong, but their two-time triumph shows how important the "administrators" are, especially in this state, he said.
Those administrators -- West Virginia's teachers -- are the main reason students have been so successful in the contest, said Amanda McClellan, a coordinator of the contest.
"It takes a good teacher to take those skills you learn and use them by making it fun for your kids," McClellan said. "The number of students participating in the state has grown tremendously over the years. They're doing very well and it's because we have wonderful teachers that have stuck with this."
McElwain said she and her students have participated in each bridge-building contest for the past 13 years because it's part of her job to do so.