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KU Engineering Students Brace for Steel Bridge Competition

Thursday, April 20, 2017

LAWRENCE — Students from the University of Kansas School of Engineering will participate later this month in the Mid-Continent Conference Steel Bridge Competition at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The competition, set for April 20-22, is hosted by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC).

For the competition, each team has to design a 20-foot bridge  — a scale model one-tenth the size of its real-world counterpart — whose components fit into a 3-foot-by-6-inch-by-4-inch box — then assemble it on site as quickly as possible. And that’s fast: Winners in 2016 were able to assemble their bridge in under three minutes.

But speed isn’t the only consideration: The bridge will be judged by a team of professional engineers on how good it looks, how well it handles loads and the “cost” of building it — a score that increases with the weight of the bridge. The aim of the competition, like golf, is to end with the lowest score.

"We're trying to make a light, stiff bridge that we can put together quickly," said Seth Horvatic, a senior in civil engineering from Atchison. He is co-captain on this year’s team.

While KU and other competing universities will be judged by the results at the end of April, the team has been working all school year to prepare: This year’s rules were released in the fall; KU’s team had its design completed by November. After that, the team has been fabricating, cutting and welding the pieces that will be used in assembling the bridge at the competition.

Last year’s rules requested that competitors create a “generic” bridge that could be adapted by a state department of transportation, with minor revisions, to nearly any site requiring a bridge. This year’s design problem is more site-specific, asking competitors to come up with a design for an “environmentally sensitive” area, where they’ll have to decide whether to relocate existing utilities or build around them.

The competition is designed to give student engineers a taste of real-world design and project challenges.

“Success in competition requires application of engineering principles and theory, and effective teamwork,” the competition sponsors say in the rules. “Future engineers are stimulated to innovate, practice professionalism and use structural steel efficiently.”

"It gets you out of just doing calculations in classes,” Horvatic said. “We can be in class all day looking at a beam to see if it can hold a load — this gets you more of a hands-on activity outside of a classroom, textbook questions and answers."

The top teams at the regional competition will earn a spot in the national competition, May 26-27 at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.

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