Bridge To Victory: Students Prepare for Steel Bridge Competition

The 2011 Steel Bridge Team: Vilius Plavinskas, George Clarke, Danny Caceres, Christopher Gochnauer, Derrick Scott, and Jarrad Morris

On Saturday morning, as the community of Polytechnic Institute of NYU leisurely wakes and begins the weekend, students from its chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) will be frantically erecting a steel bridge. It will be miniaturized, of course, and none of the students will be paid for their efforts — that is, unless they win the regional ASCE Steel Bridge Competition. If that happens, the payoff will be a shot at the nationals at Texas A&M University in May.

Victory has so far eluded the group, but this year the team is more competitive, partially because it’s not splitting its attention between two competitions. Normally, the student chapter would be participating in both the Steel Bridge and Concrete Canoe competitions, which the ASCE holds in conjunction with its annual conference. Historically, the team has fared better in the latter challenge, going on to the nationals of that competition several times. Timing and spatial issues kept the team from entering this year, however, so it’s instead putting all its attention on the Steel Bridge Competition, which challenges participants to design and build a steel bridge with a cantilever span. They will be judged on multiple criteria, such as how quickly the team can construct the bridge, its length, and how much weight the bridge can bear.

Bake Sales and Steel

To compete, the team had to first complement the funds NYU-Poly provides each of its student chapters and clubs, so the group held bake sales and sought corporate sponsorships to secure funding for its activities. Jacobs Engineering, the American Institute of Steel Construction, and Lincoln Electric signed on to back the team; Lincoln Electric even sent representatives to instruct the students on the finer points of welding.

That’s right: students actually handle the steel that comprises the bridge. “For them to take what they read in textbooks and what they learn in class and actually apply it to a real object, that’s where the value of this competition comes into play,” says Jose Ulerio, industry associate professor of civil engineering and mentor to its ASCE student chapter.

Describing Ulerio as “one of the best advisors you could ever ask for,” Ceyda Asik, a senior civil engineering major and president of the student chapter, affirms his observation, explaining that the competition “gives you hands-on experience. That’s the most important thing. The bridge might look perfect in the design and when you do the calculations, but when you actually construct it, not everything will be perfect.”

“Like when you’re welding steel,” interrupts her team member Phil Pachacz, also a senior civil engineering major. “You expect it to be straight, but because of the heat, it goes to the side. It’s not a perfect 90-degree angle, and you have to work with that.”

Such constraints apply because, unlike the teams at other schools, the students at NYU-Poly make their entry entirely by hand. “We actually build the bridge with our hands. We cut it, we weld it, we do everything,” Pachacz says. Some participants simply produce designs and then submit their drawings to fabricators who use machines to cut the bridge pieces. While that approach inevitably produces a more professional product, Pachacz says NYU-Poly’s method leads to “a different type of satisfaction.”

Making Connections

Whatever the outcome of this weekend’s competition, Asik and Pachacz say the experience holds significant value. “You become like a family,” says Asik about her teammates, who, in the course of weekends spent together grinding, cleaning, and assembling steel, come to share thoughts on the professional ranks they’ll soon join, as well as more personal subjects.

Pachacz, a third-year veteran of the competitions, reports that a similar camaraderie between teams arises at the events, an observation Professor Ulerio encourages. “It opens doors,” he says. “I always tell them that how you get a job many a time is who you know, and sometimes you make an acquaintance in college who ultimately is going to be the one to hand your résumé to the right person.”

“And [the competition] is actually really fun,” Asik reminds Pachacz, smiling.

Students interested in joining the fun and supporting the team can attend the regional competition on Saturday, April 16, at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. Judging begins at 9:30am., and awards are distributed at 3:30pm. Those wishing to learn more about the ASCE student chapter at NYU-Poly can email Asik at caski01@students.poly.edu or Ulerio at julerio@poly.edu.