NU engineers cross bridge to national competition

Deborah Hirsch

Building a 23-foot, 200-pound steel bridge in under four minutes earned Northwestern civil engineering undergraduates a trip to a national collegiate bridge-building competition on May 27.

About 20 civil engineering students, faculty and staff will travel to Clemson, S.C., for nationals after tying for second place at the Midwest regional of the annual steel bridge competition, held April 27 at the University of Illinois.

“This was a great team that did all the right things,” said Dan Hogan, infrastructure technology staff member, in an e-mail. “They managed their project very carefully, came up with great ideas, built a great bridge and competed like champions.”

Out of 10 schools at the competition, NU initially placed third behind the University of Wisconsin and Illinois.

“It was so close that for all intents and purposes it was a dead heat between Illinois, Wisconsin and Northwestern,” Hogan said.

But judges awarded NU a tie for second after Gigi Yuen, NU’s bridge project manager, wrote a letter appealing the decision.

“We had some funny judging,” said Helene Brennan, a McCormick sophomore who cut steel for the bridge. “It wasn’t very clean-cut.”

The students claimed that some of the measurements were incorrect, especially because the bridges were weighed on four different bathroom scales, Hogan said.

“(Bridges) demand very precise and accurate measurements, and that was not provided in the competition,” said Yuen, a McCormick senior. “(The judges) did not give us enough confidence in their mathematical ability to compute the numbers.”

Based on Yuen’s letter, the judges reconsidered the scores and bumped NU up to second place, allowing the students the chance to compete against about 40 schools at the national competition.

In the contests, bridges are judged on a “money system,” with the cheapest bridge winning, Hogan said. The bridges accumulate price for excess height, weight and assembly time.

During the competition, teams of students assembled their bridges over a 13-foot wide blue tarp and were charged extra for stepping on or dropping tools in the tarp “river.”

Judges are “very nit-picky about details,” said Joseph Schofer, chairman of the civil engineering department. They penalized schools for small deviations from the rule book and even used magnets to make sure the bridges were constructed with steel, he said.

Because time also was an element in the competition, NU students practiced assembling their bridge at night in the halls of the Technological Institute, Schofer said. While some schools took almost an hour to set up their bridges, NU’s team had theirs up in 3 minutes and 30 seconds, Hogan said.

The group of civil engineering students began designing their bridge, which could support 2,500 pounds, after receiving competition guidelines in September. The students divided construction, funding and assembly responsibilities, Schofer said.

Advanced software and technology labs allowed the NU team to test replicas of their bridge, Schofer said. Students were able to analyze a piece of the bridge in the lab to see if it would work before continuing construction.

“We’re lucky because we have people that have the knowledge, computer technology and the equipment all in one place,” Schofer said.

Hogan said other teams complained about not having a facility where they could construct or test their bridges. Many of these schools sent their designs to be built by a contractor, but the NU students made their entire bridge by hand in a mechanical engineering shop, he said.

In the past, NU hasn’t been as successful in the competition, Schofer said. The NU bridge collapsed under the weight of the test load the first year, took fifth the second year and got disqualified last year.

“For being so new in the competition, we’ve come a long way,” said Georgia Borovilos, a McCormick junior and second-year bridge-builder. “I’m very proud of the team.”

Hogan said NU had beat some of the strongest competitors from past years.

“(NU) is one of the big kids on the block now,” he said.