The Super Bowl of civil engineering

For many civil engi­neers, the annual steel bridge com­pe­ti­tion might as well be the Super Bowl. It’s a big deal — uni­ver­sity teams all over the country spend many months, and many late nights, coming up with a bridge design, fab­ri­cating the pieces, and building their own per­sonal mas­ter­piece. The bridges are serious, too: they need to be able to hold 2500 pounds of steel! That’s how much a Kia Rio weighs, just in case you were wondering.

North­eastern used to have its own team, but with seniors pur­suing their cap­stone projects strapped for time and younger stu­dents still learning the basics of engi­neering, it fiz­zled out after just a few years. A true foot­ball steel bridge diehard, Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering depart­ment chair Jerry Hajjar took mat­ters into his own hands.…or rather, he placed mat­ters in the hands of Matt Pel­le­grino, a civil engi­neering stu­dent soon to grad­uate with a BS/​MS in struc­tural engineering.

Pel­le­grino did for the North­eastern Steel Bridge Team what Walter Matthau did for the Bad News Bears.…only instead of starting with a bunch of ter­rible players, he had, well, no players. He recruited 25 stu­dents evenly dis­persed across years, and got to work.

While most steel bridge teams have a single goal–to build an awe­some bridge that wins the competition–Pellegrino had another chal­lenge. He also had to build his team to be sus­tain­able, so that it would last long after he’d left campus (inci­den­tally, for a bridge engi­neering job in Dallas, which he’ll be starting just a few weeks after tossing his cap in the air this Friday).

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The North­eastern Steel Bridge Team assem­bling their bridge on game day. Photo cour­tesy of Matt Pellegrino.

How does one build a sus­tain­able team? With nearly two decades of lead­er­ship training with the Boyscouts of America, Pel­le­grino had some­thing of an idea: You have to make each member of the team an inte­gral part of the project, he told me. Instead of designing an elab­o­rate sus­pen­sion bridge that requires com­pu­ta­tional analysis to deter­mine the mul­tiple forces on the struc­ture, the team chose a sim­pler truss bridge design. “It’s like the Tobin rather than the Zakim,” Pel­le­grino explained.

With the sim­pler struc­ture, the younger stu­dents could under­stand the system they were working with, they actu­ally got to be a part of it. “Then, because they were involved in the design, they’re more inclined to stay around and build the bridge and see it come up,” said Pellegrino.

They started designing last fall, then around Christmas time put in an order for steel. North­eastern alumnus Todd Stevens of Dimen­sion Fab­ri­ca­tions in Albany, NY donated all of it. “That guy was like Santa Claus,” said Pellegrino.

With a few hun­dred pounds of steel in hand, they spent many, many hours between Jan­uary and mid-​​April in the Snell Engi­neering building. They machined all of the pieces, cre­ating their own giant Kinex set, and then assem­bled them into their mini-​​Tobin. A few days before the North­eastern Regional Com­pe­ti­tion, they care­fully broke it down into a few sec­tions. Just like the shrunken bridge, the sec­tions had to fit real world spec­i­fi­ca­tions. They had to be smaller than a 3’x4“x5” box (a scaled ver­sion of a tractor trailer bed), and they had to weigh less than 20 pounds (the scaled weight limits for most roads).

They trans­ported their mini-​​bridge pieces across the river to MIT where 10 teams com­peted for a spot in the national com­pe­ti­tion. Five of Pellegrino’s team­mates assem­bled the bridge on the clock and then bit their fin­ger­nails as they placed 100 25-​​pound pieces of cut steel across the top: The bridge stood the test of steel!

They also man­aged to over­come the Achilles heel that had plagued the old North­eastern Steel Bridge Team: when pulled from a cer­tain point, the bridge moved less than a half inch in the lat­eral direc­tion (as you might imagine, shaky bridges aren’t much fun in real life).

While they didn’t come in first place…or really any­where close to first place, the team feels incred­ibly suc­cessful in its mis­sion. They built their team, and their bridge, to be sus­tain­able against the expected forces. Instead of 2500 pounds of steel, the stu­dent group has to with­stand the con­stant flux of stu­dents coming and going. They’ll need to work together to pass their skill sets from one gen­er­a­tion to the next.

Pel­le­grino said the effort was in no way a one-​​man show. Every member of the team had a role to play, and he is con­fi­dent that after he’s been in Dallas for many years designing life-​​size bridges, the North­eastern Steel Bridge Team will still be building their mini ones.