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A group of civil engineering majors will compete with about 40 other squads at the National Steel Bridge Competition in Orlando, Fla., next week after taking second place at a regional competition last month.

The annual event is the largest and most prestigious civil engineering competition in the country.

The main group undertaking design and fabrication on the Steel Bridge Team has been Marquis Scholars Lauren Adinolfi ’06 (Hopewell Junction, N.Y.), Eric Backlund ’07 (Parlin, N.J.), Steve Bono ’05(Upper Saddle River, N.J.), Susan Bowers ’05 (Williamsport, Pa.), and Lee Vanzler ’07 (Sharon, Mass.), Trustee Scholar Michael Nilson ’05 (Wantagh, N.Y.), and Debra Gilkerson ’06 (Albany, Calif.), Brian Jennings ’06 (Old Bridge, N.J.), Ron Manney ’05(Coal Township, Pa.), Jack Murphy ’06 (Easton, Pa.), and Trevor Ortolano ’07 (East Nassau, N.Y).

Other contributors are Joe Danatzko ’07 (West Caldwell, N.J.) Mike Eisen ’07 (Montville, N.J.), Jeff Crowe ’05 (Norwalk, Conn.), and Julia Rosenbloom ’05 (Elkins Park, Pa.).

Adinolfi, Bono, Bowers, Eisen, Gilkerson, Manney, Nilson, and Vanzler represented Lafayette April 24 in the regional event at Johns Hopkins.

Teams try to construct the lowest “cost” bridge that supports 2,500 lbs. of vertical load. “Cost” is the total score of a bridge’s structural and construction merits, the goal being to create a bridge that is light, deflects little under load, and can be quickly assembled.

“Designing a bridge that supports 2,500 lbs. is easy,” says team adviser Steven Kurtz, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. “It’s designing one under the stringent regulations that can be assembled quickly that’s the challenge.”

Kurtz says top teams at the national competition will assemble their bridges in the 90-second range, impressive when one considers bridges are more than 20 feet in length but can have no individual part larger than 42-by-6-by-6 inches.

The regulations are very complex — restrictive, highly technical, and very legalistic, but written “so the brilliant students can exploit loopholes,” says Kurtz.

The main point is to stimulate creativity.

“The competition isn’t meant to model the real world; it is an allegory of the real world,” says the professor.

“This year’s bridge is tough,” says Manney. “Normally it’s a multi-span bridge, so there can be an abutment every ten feet or so to take the load. This year though, the rules call for a 22-foot-long bridge with no intermediate, and it’s off-center.”

Though the designs may not replicate real-world bridges, the competition makes the students better engineers.

“It teaches you many things, because you can draw all you want in Autocad, draft all you want, but some things you have to see to get them to work,” says Manney. “And because there is a time component, teams have to be able to build really fast, and normal bolt connections take a lot of time. So we have to come up with these crazy ways to construct it. It makes you think outside the normal connections, outside the normal fabrication, outside the normal engineering.”

Citing the necessarily conservative nature of real-world construction engineering, Kurtz delights in the chance for his young engineers to come up with something “wild.” He also has seen a tremendous camaraderie develop among members of the team, a function of the competition and the engineering program at Lafayette.

Manney concurs, noting that the size of the program builds closeness because “we’re with the same 20 to 23 people since freshman or sophomore year. I have had 10, 12 classes with the same people and that really helps to build friendships. And when we do steel bridge, the intensity brings us closer together. Last year, many of the students went three days without sleep in the final phase; that effort brings you closer together.”

The regional competition didn’t mark the first time that these civil engineering majors built a model bridge. Students in Kurtz’s Structural Analysis and Structural Design class, a degree requirement taken in the junior year, must build a model bridge.

“My number one feeling is that the greatest difficulty any structural engineering student has with understanding the subject always comes down to being able to see it,” says Kurtz, sitting among dozens of structures he uses to illustrate engineering principles.

The hands-on experience also helps students go beyond textbook theory.

“Their abilities are escalated so much more when they’ve built something. You can’t be creative if you’ve never created,” he explains.

The bridge-building experience in class is a benefit of the Lafayette engineering program, according to Kurtz.

“At most schools, that would be impossible, because you are dealing with dozens or hundreds of undergraduates in the civil engineering program. But we have a dozen or so students, and that is a great strength.

“All of our labs are taught by professors and we are committed to teaching a large number of labs. Labs connote small groups – they are only effective in small groups. You can’t have a lab experience with 30 students and Lafayette is able to give students lab experiences with manageable class sizes.”

Categorized in: Academic News