Student engineer teams from more than 30 colleges and universities across North America put their design and construction skills to the test at the national finals of the Student Steel Bridge Competition, held May 27-28 at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Organized by the American Institute of Steel Construction in collaboration with the American Society of Civil Engineers, the annual competition challenges students to design, fabricate and build steel structures that are functional, constructable and attractive.

Although the competition’s rules set specific requirements for materials and components such as members, bolts and nuts, the actual approach to creating the bridge is up to the teams.

“Our competition is outcome-based,” says the competition’s longtime head judge John Parucki. “We don’t care how you get there.”

Still, Parucki adds that the competition’s parameters have evolved over the past 30 years in step with the nature of infrastructure itself.

“The rules have gotten complex because the real world has gotten complex,” he says.”

The road to this year’s finals began last August with release of the problem statement: create a 1:10 scale model of a limited-access green wildlife bridge to span an interstate highway. In addition to requiring all parts of the bridge to remain below the bridge deck, terrain conditions required certain portions of the structure to be skewed and cantilevered.

Over the academic year, team members collaborated to develop and refine designs, generate shop drawings and evaluate cost and scheduling factors. Some teams cut and welded their own bridge members while others work with outside fabricators.

University of British Columbia student Halle Suarez says the yearlong process revealed each team member’s unique ability to contribute to the project, including identifying those who perform the timed build for competition purposes.

“You see both skill and passion for doing specific things emerge,” Suarez says, adding that delegating tasks among various sub-teams, “gives everyone a chance to transform the bridge from concept to reality.”

Of the nearly 140 teams that participated in regional competitions, 35 teams qualified for the finals. Thirty-four teams were able to participate, representing schools across the U.S., Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico. 

For some of the more far-flung competitors, ensuring that several hundred pounds of steel components, tools and safety equipment safely made it to Blacksburg required a different kind of creativity. One team distributed its load in multiple 50-lb cases to qualify as carry-on baggage.

Although teams had likely assembled their model hundreds of times over the past year, some nevertheless got in several rounds of last-minute practice in hotel parking lots the night before and morning of the main competition, held at Virginia Tech’s indoor football practice facility. Often boosted by the boisterous cheering of teammates, friends and family members, each team raced the clock to demonstrate how its bridge could be constructed quickly with minimal errors while also observing simulated real-world restrictions—in this case, avoiding any building activity within similarly scaled highway confines.

The loud intensity of the timed builds gradually gave way to quiet anticipation as judges put the completed bridges through a series of tests, including measuring deflections as teams carefully placed 2,500 lbs of steel on the structure.

Failures, though rare, do occur at the finals, as many teams tweak their designs following the regional competitions.

“We all try to make it better, especially when you discover changes that could’ve been made earlier," observes Mike Orlandella, faculty advisor for Kennesaw State University’s team. “But there’s only so much you can do. Sometimes, you gamble and push things too far.”

And when that happens, as was the case with several models this year, the judges strive to turn the failures into what Parucki calls “eureka moments,” an opportunity to learn how unexpected reactions under load can compromise even the most diligently crafted designed structures.

“These are teaching moments that the students will carry with them as they star their careers,” he says.

Though intense, the competition was also friendly, as teams regularly exchanged anecdotes about their designs and experiences. The event also underscored engineering’s increasing diversity, with women and minorities represented on many teams.

In the end, the University of Florida’s team earned top honors for best overall project. The University of Alaska Fairbanks took second place, while Lafayette College of Easton, Pa., finished third. Awards also were presented for leaders in specific judging categories, including erection speed, design efficiency, weight, cost and stiffness.

“We saw 34 ways of solving a problem,” Parucki says of the event, “and all of them were good.”