Cal Poly’s Steel Bridge Team Returns to Nationals with Help from Their Predecessors

Cal Poly's steel bridge team is competing in the nationals for the first time in two years.
Civil engineering students Katie Evans, Fabian Leon and Macky Hamilton demonstrate assembly of the Cal Poly Steel Bridge they designed and built for the 2021American Society of Civil Engineers collegiate competition.

After last year’s steel bridge team captains had dedicated more than 2,000 hours over several months preparing for the annual Student Steel Bridge Competition, they were devastated to learn two weeks out that the event had been cancelled amid COVID-19 concerns. But the team’s efforts to pass on their knowledge have paid off, leading Cal Poly to return to the national finals.

Cal Poly's steel bridge team has advanced to the finals, held remotely this year due to the pandemic
Civil engineering students Macky Hamilton, Fabian Leon and Katie Evans display the Cal Poly Steel Bridge they designed and built for the 2021American Society of Civil Engineers collegiate competition.

“So much time and effort had gone into designing and fabricating the bridge (last year), so not being able to see it all the way through was heartbreaking for us,” said Fabian Leon, project manager for the team. “Last year’s captains, however, quickly thought about training the next team of captains for this year’s competition, which was very helpful for us.”

The public can help Cal Poly’s team by voting for it online, beginning May 10. The national awards will be presented June 3.

The American Institute of Steel Construction’s (AISC) signature university event is traditionally an annual competition that challenges student teams to develop a scale-model steel bridge.  The team must determine how to fabricate their bridge and then plan for an efficient assembly under timed construction at the competition.  Bridges are then load tested and weighed.  The bridge must span approximately 20 feet, carry 2,500 pounds, and must meet all other specifications of the competition rules.  Bridge aesthetics are also judged and considered in the final results of the competition.

This year, because of the pandemic, the AISC offered two ways for schools to participate safely: either through a remote program in which teams designed, fabricated, constructed, and tested their bridges from campus, or in a design-only supplemental competition.

Cal Poly is one of nine schools competing in the latter, design-only category.

Cal Poly’s steel bridge teams have enjoyed considerable success over the years with several national finals appearances. Last year’s team was 90 percent done with the fabrication phase, and team members had made plans to travel to the regional competition at CSU Fullerton when they were notified that the event would be cancelled due to the pandemic.

Around that time, the Cal Poly campus shut down due to county-wide sheltering orders. But, despite the disappointment, the team began meeting via Zoom to work on the next year’s competition.

“Of course, one of our goals after the competition is to pass on technical information and useful knowledge to the next year’s team so that is essentially what we did,” former team manager Jose Chalapa said last summer. “We had weekly lectures with the entire team going over every single phase of our year-long steel bridge project. We met individually with junior captains to discuss, in detail, their roles as the next steel bridge senior captains.”

With that in mind, Leon said, this year’s team worked hard to make last year’s captains proud.

Initially, the team met virtually to figure out designs. While clubs still have not been cleared to work on campus, this one had a special exemption.

“After we decided on a final design, we were able to work in the machine shops to fabricate the bridge since this steel bridge competition is the captains’ senior project,” Leon said.

The team could have used last year’s design, but members decided to go with a new design, using elements of last year’s work.

This year’s winners will be announced June 3.

Cal Poly last competed in the nationals in 2018, finishing second overall, just behind Lafayette College.  The team did not advance to the nationals the following year.

“The entire team was very excited to return to the competition since we had not competed in the national finals for the past two years,” Leon said. “We wanted to put Cal Poly back on the map (in the competition), and we were so glad to be able to make this year’s national finals!”

The Cal Poly College of Engineering understands there has been an enormous amount of turmoil and transition due to Coronavirus (COVID-19). As we continue offering support to our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends, we also continue providing critical updates as well as college highlights. Ours is a college full of creative and bright engineers and staff. For more information on COVID-19 visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. For more information on how Cal Poly is responding to COVID-19, visit the Cal Poly Coronavirus website Coronavirus website.

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