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Engineering Ingenuity: Concrete canoes and lightweight bridges at Gulf Coast Symposium

The Gulf Coast Student Symposium challenged more than 400 engineering students from 15 universities with everything from concrete canoe races and surveying tests to construction, transportation and coastal erosion projects.

One event – the bridge-building competition – had special significance for Dr. Eric Steward, associate dean in the College of Engineering at the University of South Alabama.

“For 12 years,” he said, laughing, “I’ve had a deal with these students, that if we qualified to go to nationals, I’d get a tattoo with a bridge and the date.”

Just a year after losing the bridge-building event by the slimmest of margins — a quarter-inch — his South students placed second on Friday qualified for the national competition.

For the first time, South hosted the Gulf Coast Student Symposium, sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The weekend offered a chance for engineering students to compete for bragging rights with rivals from across the Southeast.

“What we do is take what we’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to something fun,” said Stazya Szeredy, a South sophomore from Navarre, Florida. “We’re hosting the symposium this year. We want to have fun.”

South took home top honors and was named Outstanding Student Chapter by compiling the most points overall.

‘Nerd March Madness’

In the concrete canoe competition, South finished third out of 11 boats in a race on Dog River. The day before, students tested the buoyancy of the 250-pound boat by dunking it in a tank at Shelby Hall. Wherever students competed, they were greeted by cheering classmates and encouraging messages.

“This is like the nerd March Madness,” joked Steward. “Our teams have been practicing for weeks and designing for months.”

Katie Pruden, left, and Jalisha Littles add weight – carefully – to test the strength of South’s entry in the balsa wood bridge-building competition at the 2023 Gulf Coast Student Symposium, sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers.Katie Pruden, left, and Jalisha Littles add weight – carefully – to test the strength of South’s entry in the balsa wood bridge-building competition at the 2023 Gulf Coast Student Symposium, sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

In a balsa wood bridge-building competition, Katie Pruden led a South team that surprised students and stumped judges.

The first two bridges in the competition collapsed at weights of 23 and 31 pounds. Then it was South’s turn. Students were supposed to add sand to a bucket suspended from their bridge until it collapsed.

Only that never happened. The bucket was completely filled with 72 pounds of sand and the bridge never broke.

Pruden, a junior from Huntsville, and Jalisha Littles, a junior from Mobile, exchanged high-fives while the judging team figured out what to do.

“Awesome, guys,” said Tim Wicker, a Mobile County engineer and one of the judges. “This is a good problem to have. Be happy.”

Finally, the judges removed the bucket, weighed it, and then began adding lead weights borrowed from another lab in Shelby Hall.

Finally, at 78.4 pounds, the South bridge snapped, but a new mark had been set.

“It’s one of those things where everyone in ASCE wants to compete and have fun,” Pruden said. “I love to compete. I think it makes you better, makes you try harder. And I thought the balsa wood bridge would be cool, designing something that was really small and strong.”

She also designed the blue T-shirts worn by host students at the Symposium.

On the front, the shirts said “South Alabama STEEL BRIDGE.” On the back, there was a joke from an Internet meme, with a sign saying “Bridge Work Ahead” and a driver saying “I Sure Hope It Does.”

Drama at the Mitchell Center

The South steel bridge-building team, captained by Dylan Casstevens, qualified for the national competition later this year at the University of California, San Diego. For the team from Mobile, it was a comeback victory.

At the 2022 Gulf Coast Student Symposium, South assembled a 20-foot-long bridge which could hold 2,500 pounds. South was disqualified, though, when one end of the bridge was found to be a quarter-inch outside the restricted building area.

“That killed me last year,” said Casstevens, a senior from Fairhope who’s doing an internship with Thompson Engineering. “We were so close.”

This year, the South team was determined to do better. Months ago, they designed and built a truss bridge. For weeks, they practiced putting it together within a 30-minute time limit.

Still, there was drama at the Mitchell Center.

The South team assembled its bridge, working together, with plenty of time to spare. Students checked and double-decked every nut and bolt.

Then Casstevens noticed that one of the steel pieces had been fastened upside down. He began shouting to team members at the other end of the bridge.

They unscrewed the piece, power drills whirring, and put it back together with the clock ticking and Casstevens shouting encouragement.

“C’mon, guys,” he yelled. “Y’all got this. There we go, there we go. Lock it down.”

The judges checked and the South bridge was found to be in the correct position this time. Half an hour later, the bridge passed a test, successfully supported 2,500 pounds, and team members breathed a sigh of relief.

They cheered, clapped and started asking about Steward’s tattoo.

University of South Alabama College of Engineering students successfully construct a steel bridge in the Mitchell Center that would support 2,500 pounds.University of South Alabama College of Engineering students successfully construct a steel bridge in the Mitchell Center that would support 2,500 pounds.

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