Virginia Tech welcomed hundreds of engineering students from across North America to its Blacksburg campus May 27-28 for the National Student Steel Bridge Competition.

Virginia Tech’s hosting duties were announced at the 2019 Student Steel Bridge Competition at Southern Illinois University. Because of COVID-19, the event was canceled in 2020 and 2021.

The main competition and awards banquet took place in the Beamer-Lawson Indoor Practice Facility. Turf that normally is covered with footballs and cleats was transformed to hold steel beams and hard hats, and the aesthetics judging area of the competition was located in the concourse of Lane Stadium. During the two-day event, participants had the opportunity to socialize, explore campus, and take in the famous Hokie Stone architecture.

The Student Steel Bridge Competition is sponsored by the American Institute of Steel Construction, which works with host schools to plan the regional events and national finals. Top teams made up of undergraduate and graduate students from over 20 regional events qualified to compete at the national finals in Blacksburg.

The competition challenges student teams to develop a scale-model steel bridge. This build starts ahead of the competition in the design and fabrication of a team's bridge and includes a thorough plan for efficient assembly under timed construction at the competition. Once it is built during the competition, the bridges are load tested and weighed. The competing teams are judged in seven categories: construction speed, lightness, aesthetics, stiffness, cost estimate, economy, and efficiency.

“The steel bridge competition is a unique growing experience for students because it presents them with an uncomfortable problem to solve, one which their professor does not have the answer to,” said Zachary Coleman, a graduate student in the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) who helped organize the event.

Coleman competed in the steel bridge competition as an undergraduate student a few years ago and said the experience was an opportunity for significant personal growth. “For many students, this competition is the first time they must leverage their engineering judgement, research skills, and ingenuity to work toward a solution as a team,” he said.

For this year’s event, Coleman was one of three graduate students from CEE who led the planning and organization. Ten other graduate students and multiple staff members also pitched in.

While some of the planning was done in 2019 prior to the national finals' cancellation, in 2020, much of it had to be reorganized as contracts had lapsed and organizers within the CEE and athletics departments had changed.

Matthew Eatherton, faculty lead organizer and advisor for Virginia Tech’s steel bridge team, was pleasantly surprised by how well the event was received.

“I went into the planning process for the Student Steel Bridge Competition National Finals thinking about the opportunity it posed to show off Virginia Tech and our department to top undergraduate students and their faculty advisors from 34 universities in North America,” said Eatherton. “What I didn’t expect was how well the organizing team came together and how many compliments I got about the high quality of the event. It was a great experience.” 

Steel Bridge Team Members working
Students from the Virginia Tech steel bridge team compete in the national finals. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech not only hosted this year’s event, but also contributed its own steel bridge team, made up of five CEE students who competed and several others who helped in the behind-the-scenes planning and design of the bridge. Tech’s team earned a spot at nationals by placing first in all seven categories at its regional competition in April. While the team didn’t place in the top spots at the national event, it was still a learning experience for all that were involved.   

“I cannot think of a better educational experience to help prepare students for careers in design and to help them develop independent thinking,” Coleman said.

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