BRIDGES program builds strong foundations for life

Author: Nina Welding

Athrall2019aAshley P. Thrall

Building bridges, building relationships and building for the future all start with solid foundations, like the fundamental knowledge and problem-solving skills being developed through the Building Relationships to Inspire and Drive Girls to pursue Engineering and Science (BRIDGES) program.

A partnership between the University of Notre Dame’s Kinetic Structures Laboratory and Riley High School, BRIDGES targets girls, grades 9-12, who are enrolled in the technology and engineering magnet at Riley. This before-school enrichment program was developed by Ashley P. Thrall, the Myron and Rosemary Noble Associate Professor of Structural Engineering, as part of her National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program award. The program is run in collaboration with Kristen Haubold, a Riley faculty member. Graduate students Yao Wang and Mirela Tumbeva lead and implement the program.

BRIDGES, which began in September 2014, has continued to grow each year. Twenty high school girls currently participate. “One of the educational goals of my NSF CAREER award,” says Thrall, “was to increase the participation and retention of women in STEM. I’m working toward this goal through various interventions at the middle school, high school and undergraduate and graduate student levels. The program is unique in that it enables sustained interaction with high school women from freshman through senior year, fostering an environment for friendships and mentoring, which is so important.”

Coursework in the program includes seminars that teach bridge terminology, the history and theory of suspension bridges, and information on movable and deployable bridges. Throughout the year, there is also a wide range of interactive activities and experiences during which student teams design and build their own suspension and moveable bridges.


“We’ve found that one of the best ways to introduce engineering to young girls and encourage them to pursue careers in engineering and science is to present basic theories related to structural engineering and support those theories with hands-on activities,” says Wang.

According to Tumbeva, one of the favorite activities in the BRIDGES program has been building structures such as suspension bridges, truss bridges and tall buildings. “Designing and building structures, even when they are made of K’nex, cardboard and string, gives the girls a better understanding of how engineering principles work,” she says.

The students agree. Erica Romero, a sophomore who is interested in pursuing a career in engineering or medicine, has been a BRIDGES participant for two years. “The thing I most enjoy about the program,” she says, “is that we learn about the different aspects of engineering and different bridges. Because they are so hands-on, the activities help us better understand structures and how to create them so they are safe and strong.”


Junior Abby Donaldson has been a BRIDGES student since her freshman year and is already checking out the engineering programs at different universities. “I started in the BRIDGES program because I wanted to explore different fields of engineering, and I’ve learned a lot,” she says. “The hands-on activities make the information the program leaders share with us more meaningful because we can see those things in action and experience them for ourselves. More than that, we learn how to work in teams and listen to the ideas of others, the way engineers do when they have a problem to solve.”


Field trips to study infrastructure round out the BRIDGES experience. Locations have included regional sites such as the City of Chicago Department of Water Treatment and the Chicago offices of AECOM, local projects such as the City of South Bend’s East Bank Phase V Construction Project and South Bend Fire Station, and University locations such as the Notre Dame Campus Crossroads Project, Corby Hall and the Matthew and Joyce Walsh Family Hall of Architecture.

For more information on BRIDGES, visit

Originally published by Nina Welding at on May 16.