Bridge builders display their mettle

Jenna Ross

Members of the University’s steel-bridge competition team were nervous.

Someone on one of the eight opposing teams had learned the University team had violated a contest rule, and the snitch had reported it to a judge.

But team co-captain Steve Nelson immediately recalled that players cannot tell on other teams.

“(Nelson) played lawyer, arguing with the judges,” co-captain and civil engineering junior Thomas Root said.

The judges debated for 15 minutes, and – rather than disqualify the team – agreed with Nelson.

“It was close, and I’m just happy we weren’t disqualified,” Root said. “A guy on a disqualified team was really upset – he threw his hard hat.”

The University’s team participated in an eight-hour bridge-building competition Saturday, part of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Midwest Regional Conference.

Eight Midwestern student teams and one from Canada competed and compared their 26-foot-long bridges, which they made out of steel, cable and bars.

“The goal is to have the fastest, strongest, lightest bridge,” conference student organizer Jessica Mitchell said.

At the competition, judges assessed the bridges’ aesthetics and strength. Each bridge had to be able to hold 2,500 pounds. With judges and other teams watching, team members assembled their bridge over an imaginary river as quickly as possible.

“The bridge has to be taken apart and put back together,” civil engineering junior Tom Westover said. “Plus, the bridge has to be free-standing. It’s tough to figure out.”

While other teams focused on assembling their bridges as quickly as possible, the University team, through equations and some Excel spreadsheets, discovered that a fast time on this section of the competition was not required to win.

“Some of these teams will construct their bridge in a minute and a half,” Nelson, a senior, said. “We’ll probably take about eight minutes.”

All three parts of the contest evaluated the bridges with real-life standards and in dollars spent.

The winning team had the best overall economy.

Although the University team placed seventh – lower than they had hoped but better than last year’s eighth-place finish – they focused on the positive experiences leading up to Saturday.

“In some ways it’s just nice to be done,” Root said. “We put 200 to 300 hours into this project, and now we have made it through.”

For many of those preparatory hours, the team sorted through the engineering problem and 30 pages of rules.

“But that’s not all,” Mitchell said. “There are 11 pages of clarifications to those 30 pages of rules.”

The team spent more than a month figuring out that equation and two months constructing the bridge.

“Lately, we’d meet for five hours a night,” Nelson said. “This group of people is so incredibly dedicated.”