Sharon Wood Wortman has been Portland’s “Bridge Lady” for more than two decades. She’s the author of “The Portland Bridge Book,” with her bridge engineer husband, Ed Wortman. She has led bridge walking tours and taught bridge building classes to eager students.
When she decided for a change of pace, the couple decided they needed one final project.
It became “The Big & Awesome Bridges of Portland and Vancouver: A Book for Young Readers and Their Teachers.” The hardcover, 240-page book aimed at third- and fourth-graders highlights the region’s many bridges, from the Interstate 5 Bridge on the Columbia River to the Oregon City, Ore., bridge over the Willamette River.
Bridges have been a subject taught in the Portland School District since at least the 1950s as part of third-grade social studies, but “there’s never been a book for this age group (on bridges),” said Wortman. She sees bridge curriculum as a way to introduce science, technology, engineering and math concepts at a younger grade.
“We started out with an idea that we were going to give this book to Portland Public Schools and Vancouver Public Schools,” she said.
Wortman said she knew the book needed to be approachable, but the road to getting “Big & Awesome Bridges” printed wasn’t smooth. Working with the nonprofit PDX Bridge Festival, the couple raised more than $100,000 over five years from community members, organizations and business.
The illustrations, elevation drawings and the Bridge Lady character were the work of Portland Community College’s Graphic Design Department.
“We wanted a book that would last for the ages, and you want it to be awesome. It also turned out to be big,” she said.
A total of 105 free books have been donated to classrooms and libraries in Vancouver Public Schools. Wortman is aiming to do the same with Evergreen Public Schools. The Fort Vancouver Regional Library District has six copies.
“I cannot tell you how (bridges) resonate with kids,” she said. She recently gave an author’s talk to a class of fourth graders at Burnt Bridge Creek Elementary School. “They all had questions for me,” she said. “I didn’t have to work very hard to get them excited.”
Questions ranged from, “Do bridges ever fall down?” to “What’s it like to be an author?”
Schoolchildren of this age are “starting to come into their own and see the world, and see where they fit in the world,” Wortman said. “One of the most common questions after why bridges all look different, is, ‘What holds the bridge up? What does it look like from under the water?’ “
Wortman presented the free books at the monthly teacher librarian meeting. She said it was like playing a complex piece of classical music for professional musicians. “Their reaction was so wonderful, they especially recognized the book’s content and it’s aesthetics.”
“Big & Awesome Bridges” is also filled with activities and lesson plans, including patterns for building popsicle stick bridges.
“I just stuck with truss bridges; they’re all modeled after truss bridges in Vancouver and Portland,” Wortman said.
Vancouver and Portland have one of the “finest truss bridge collection in the world,” she said. With 13 truss bridges spanning the Columbia and Willamette rivers, they’re easy to spot. Just look for the structure of triangles usually made from straight steel beams.
Bridge-building curriculum challenges students to build the lightest bridge possible, maybe weighing 5 to 8 ounces, but they can still hold a surprising amount of weight.
“What happens with third graders is this is the first time they get to build something on their own in school,” said Wortman.
“I wanted this book to be a bridge between the two cities. It bridges across the curriculum. Bridges can teach poetry, art, engineering, science, math, geology, geography, you name it.”
The print run was 7,450 books. The leftover books not given away to schools are being sold for $50 to help cover printing costs, with discounts for teachers and classrooms. And once the books are gone, they’re gone.