Friday, May 7, 2010

How 'bout them Leopards

Civil engineering seniors work to extend run of strong finishes in national competition

You might say they're building a bridge to their futures. Each spring, several seniors majoring in civil engineering compete against their peers from around the country to see who can design and build the best bridge at the lowest cost. The real-world experience can be invaluable as they prepare to pursue graduate degrees and careers in civil engineering.

Lafayette's Steel Bridge Team will be making its fifth trip to the National Student Steel Bridge Competition in the last six years. The team placed seventh at nationals last year and fifth the year before. The competition, which is sponsored by the American Institute of Steel Construction and the American Society of Civil Engineers, attracts more than 200 engineering schools to 19 regional competitions throughout the country. The national competition will be held May 28-29 at Purdue University.

Getting to the national level requires a lot of hard work by the team members, whose participation is an independent study with Stephen Kurtz, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. To succeed, students draw on skills they have learned in engineering courses such as Statics, Strength of Materials, and Structural Analysis and Steel Design. They must be able to execute a big-picture conceptual analysis as well as attend to tiny details. They also learn how to produce professional-quality drawings and manage a construction project.

"The National Student Steel Bridge Competition is the best learning experience that a future structural engineer can have," Kurtz says. "It actually surpasses professional projects in the real world due to the fact that it is a competitive exercise that encourages students to consider unconventional and risky ideas--‘unconventional’ and ‘risky’ are two adjectives that are frowned upon in the real world."

This year's team includes Wystan Carswell (Huntingdon Valley, Pa.), Jason Garman (Seymour, Conn.), Tim Polson (Wilton, N.H.), Matthew Reichenbach (Kingsville, Md.), Jeff Shoemaker (Schnecksville, Pa.), and Mark Sliwinski (Glen Ridge, N.J.).

"Structures are a passion of mine and I’m a naturally competitive person, so the bridge competition seemed to be the perfect event for me," Reichenbach says.

Polson has been interested in structural engineering since high school and chose to attend Lafayette partly because of the opportunity to be a part of the team. "I targeted college programs that had either specific concentrations in structural engineering or unique project opportunities for students. Lafayette's regular participation and annual success in the national competition was a contributing factor for me deciding to come here," he says.

"The Steel Bridge team has for several years had a prestige amongst Lafayette civil engineers as an elite society of the 'hardcore' and the elite engineers--or perhaps the ones who are just a bit crazy," says Carswell, the lone female on this year's team. "It is expected that we will lose sleep over the design and fabrication of the bridge, and that the work will be hard and time-consuming."

The rules for the competition change each year, so teams must constantly adapt to produce a viable design. Lafayette's team spent from August until December this past fall meticulously designing, testing, and analyzing potential components of the bridge. The students started fabrication in January and have made adjustments along the way.

"When confronted with a problem, we are forced to diagnose the issue and resolve the matter immediately in order to keep to our schedule. I believe that this ability to identify a problem and produce a viable solution will prove to be beneficial in both academic and professional realms," Polson says.

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