For the second time in the past six years, the team from the University of California at Berkeley won the National Student Steel Bridge Competition, the two primary sponsors of which are the American Institute of Steel Construction and ASCE. The final round, which was hosted by the ASCE student chapter at Clemson University, took place May 25–26, and 47 student teams from the United States, Canada, Mexico, and China took part.
“At the competition last year, at Texas A&M, we faced the tough reality” of not finishing in the top three, says Sabrina Odah, S.M.ASCE, the captain of the 24-member Berkeley team. “But this year we wanted to come back and have a really strong and competitive team. It was that spirit and that attitude that carried us through the entire academic year. I attribute our finishing first this year to our team growing very close, and therefore we had an extremely good work ethic and a tremendous sense of teamwork. What that showed was how functional we could be as a team of young engineers working together.”
“When you look at these three important criteria of the competition—weight, speed, and the selection—Cal Berkeley had an excellent bridge,” says Scott D. Schiff, Ph.D., M.ASCE, a professor of civil engineering at Clemson, a faculty adviser to the Clemson team, and one of the organizers of this year’s finals. “A lot of times a team will do very well in one area, but they did extremely well in all three. Cal Berkeley is one of the schools that you look at and know that they are going to be competitive at the national level every year.”
For earning the highest overall score, the Berkeley team was honored with a $3,000 check from ASCE. The team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology placed second, and California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo placed third.
This was the 21st year of this annual event, which gives aspiring structural engineers an opportunity to display their ingenuity and creativity in a setting the encourages and rewards teamwork. The bridges designed by the student teams were scored by a team of 55 judges on the basis of a variety of criteria, among them construction speed, weight, and stiffness. The organizing committee usually alters the rules slightly each year so that teams are not designing and building the same bridge year after year.
“The curveball the rules committee threw us this year was we had to include a cofferdam element in our bridge design,” explains Odah. “Therefore, when we finished our final [bridge] design and we were working on a preliminary sequence in which we would build our bridge [at the finals], it made it very, very difficult to sequence the construction in such a way that you would have a really economical bridge.”
Odah, who graduated in May, is convinced that the team members learned quite a bit about how to be professional civil or structural engineers from this competition.
“We learned a lot about design and the behavior of steel when subjected to heat or machines in the steel shop and [about] the welding of the steel,” says Odah, who notes that 40 students contributed to the effort but only 24 traveled to Clemson. “And beyond that we learned a lot of core values, such as teamwork and resilience. I would say that was a huge factor in this year’s steel bridge team—that we came back with a competitive edge and with a mentality that we were competitive but we also had a good sense of sportsmanship. From losing last year, we matured as a team.”
“What teams learn is collaboration skills,” adds Schiff, who also helped to organize the event at Clemson in 2001. “It’s easy to say, ‘Work as a team,’ but how do you do that and how do these teams organize themselves so that some students can act as the team leader and the other students can follow and get work done?
“Also, the teams themselves have to raise thousands of dollars to get these bridges designed, fabricated, and transported to Clemson, so it is not just learning teamwork skills and communication skills; it is going out there and being able to sell your team to your sponsors because it costs money [to compete in this event.] So students and faculty are out there networking, meeting with people, and convincing them that it is a worthwhile student activity. And most [sponsors] agree, and they really enjoy the fact that these students are investing their time in an extracurricular activity that really allows the students to take some of the skills they learned in class and put them to professional use. In the end, the students who participate [in the event] learn all the important skills that they need to acquire to be an effective civil and structural engineer in the workplace.”
Before teams reach the finals, they compete in regional rounds held in conjunction with ASCE student conferences. The teams performing best in these rounds are then invited to the finals. Next year’s finals will be held in Seattle at the University of Washington.
For more information about the National Student Steel Bridge Competition and a detailed breakdown of this year’s results, please click here