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Building Bridges –Literally–Goal of Friendly Nationwide Engineering Competition

UC San Diego hosted the finals of the national steel bridge competition earlier in June

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Student cheers mixed with the noise of power tools on a Saturday morning at Liontree Arena as more than 40 student teams, including one from UC San Diego, competed in the finals of a national steel bridge competition. 

Winning the competition requires building a 20-foot steel bridge that can carry 2500 lbs–roughly the weight of a Toyota Corolla. At the same time, the bridges can’t be too heavy, or move around or deform too much–and also have to look good. 

The goal of the competition is to allow students to apply what they learned in the classroom to a practical hands-on project. The competition also teaches students interpersonal and professional skills; encourages innovation; and fosters meaningful connections between students and industry professionals. 

“Our students made a tremendous effort–they both planned the competition and played significant roles on our team,” said Machel Morrison, a professor of structural engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and one of the advisers for the campus’ team. “Two of our student leaders in particular, Wendy Miao and Rebecca Bauman, did a tremendous job balancing roles as team leaders, event planners and top notch engineering students all in the same academic year, which is remarkable.”

Highlights of the finals of the national steel bridge competition.

This year, the University of Florida brought first place home. UC San Diego placed eighth overall–a good showing given how competitive the finals were. They also won second place in several categories, including stiffness and efficiency. 

The competition attracted teams from as far as Canada and Mexico, as well as Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico. 

During the first day, the teams assemble the bridges and show them off to the judges to get points for aesthetics. Then students take the bridges apart, only to reassemble them again the morning of the second day of competition. But this time, construction is timed. 

The UC San Diego team chose to have two students, Emily Nakamura and Will Roche, work as a pair to build their bridge. The two managed to assemble more than 2 dozen parts and 275 lbs of steel in just 24 minutes.  

Nakamura, a structural engineering sophomore, said she joined the team because she wanted to meet other people in the major and learn more about construction. “Nothing goes as planned,” she said after she and Roche were done with construction. “[But] it’s fun most of the time.” 

group shot of UC San Diego's steel bridge team
The UC San Diego steel bridge team hosted the national finals on campus this month, while also competing. 

On the sidelines, the rest of the team was loudly cheering Nakamura and Roche on. Saul Chaplin, a senior and UC San Diego team member, discussed technical details with teammates and offered an explanation for each competition step for audience members who weren’t experts. He was already contemplating designs for next year. 

Asked about what drew them to the competition, members of other teams listed many positive factors. 

“I love the challenge that goes along with the competition,” said Josh Zavala, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.   

Being in San Diego was another highlight, cited by several teams. 

But in the end, it comes down to people, said UC Berkeley student Brian Garcia. 

“My favorite thing is the community,” Garcia said. 

Two students load weights on a small steel bridge
Two students from the UC San Diego steel bridge team load the bridge with weights for a loading test. 

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