There are no academic credits or grades. It can be a grueling, year-long effort of skill and sweat. And it's totally in the students' hands as to how much they put into the projects and what they get out of them.
Such are the team members of the University at Buffalo Student Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (UB-ASCE), who have the passion and drive to design and build projects for regional competitions that hopefully score high enough to qualify them to go on to nationals.
"It's a vibrant group of civil engineering students who are really interested in their chosen line of study," says Todd Snyder, SEAS instructional support specialist, who has served as UB- ASCE’s faculty advisor since 2008.
While the UB chapter has a long history of impressive results since its inception in 1964, the club has significantly increased its membership and its rankings under Snyder's watch. Last year, the chapter earned the ASCE Distinguished Chapter Award for Region I, which recognized UB as the most outstanding student organization among the 48 student chapters in its region, which includes New York, New Jersey, the New England states and Puerto Rico. The chapter was further recognized by the ASCE New York State Council with the 2014 Outstanding Student Chapter Award.
In the National Student Steel Bridge Competition, the UB team has finished in the top ten for the last three consecutive years out of over 200 competitors worldwide.
While the competition categories stay the same every year—steel bridge, concrete canoe and seismic design—the rules change, so even though the team can build on previous designs, there are always new challenges to overcome.
"They start talking about next year right after the previous competition ends," said Snyder. "On the way home (from the competition), they'll start debriefing to figure out what could have gone better and what went well."
The excitement builds throughout the year. Recent graduate Ryan O’Malley, who was a long-standing steel bridge team member, said, “The team's success correlates with the increased passion and dedication that each member has for the competition and the team."
“The project gives us an opportunity to take a given problem statement, and create a bridge that is designed, fabricated, and constructed by UB students. It provides a hands-on look at structural analysis, member fabrication, and construction concerns similar to what a practicing engineer may have to deal with,” said Bryce Mazurowski, who served as a co-project manager on the 2016 steel bridge team.
The student teams work on their projects under the mentorship of experienced engineers such as Larry Mathews and John Gast, practitioner advisors of the steel bridge contingent. Both are members of the Association of Bridge Construction and Design, Western New York Chapter, which provides financial and additional support to the students.
Mathews, a 1969 SEAS graduate recently honored as SEAS Mentor of the Year, inspects bridges across New York State for Greenman-Pedersen, Inc. "I try to pass whatever I do on to the students," he says. "We sometimes run across unusual problems or issues while we are out in the field, so I bring them back and ask the students to analyze them and recommend creative solutions."
Together with Gast, a steel bridge erection consultant, they help pave the way toward jobs for team members. "If you watch the students in action, you see their leadership ability or their intensity or commitment, and that's better than an interview," explains Mathews.
Gast says all the team members are very sharp and destined to become outstanding engineers. “They all do well, but the students who take on the team leadership usually stand out from the crowd. Contractors or engineering firms just grab these students after graduation—I call them first-rounders.”
Snyder says that the club consistently elects excellent student leadership year after year, most likely a result of outgoing officers actively working to identify future leaders and grooming them by sending them to the annual ASCE student leadership conference.
Francis Mahaney, a junior civil engineer with Clark Patterson Lee and a former concrete canoe team member, served as club president in his senior year, 2010-11. “I was working two jobs, one was an internship they wanted me to continue through the year (yep, the internship was thanks to ASCE, as is typical). We learned project management from the overall budgeting of $25,000 for the club, managing three design teams, and organizing attendance, logistics, and the experience of 30+ students at two major conferences not including a plethora of other events throughout the year.”
Mahaney, who is also a member of the SEAS Young Alumni Board and treasurer of the UB Engineering Alumni Association, continues to be fully engaged in ASCE activities as an alumnus. He is vice president of the Buffalo Section of ASCE and helps secure over $3,000 each year in funding for student scholarships and activities, volunteers at various ASCE-related events, and provides mentorship to students.
Timothy Van Oss, a Civil Engineer I at Mott MacDonald and a 2016 alumnus, served as treasurer and president of the club after participating on both the bridge and canoe teams. “The experience as an officer definitely helps in terms of people management, showing what employers look for in employees,” he said.
Van Oss has returned to the club as a practitioner advisor, providing mentoring and career advice to the students—inspired by his advisor, Jason Havens, who he says helped shape him to become the kind of leader he wanted to be.
Former team member Havens, who is now a project engineer and manager with Clark Patterson Lee and president of Rusty Nickel Brewing Company, held nearly every office in the chapter. Since graduating in 2005, he has returned as a practitioner advisor, mentoring nearly 1,000 students over a decade, hiring just shy of a dozen for the firm where he works, and assisting in the placement of dozens more.
Havens, president-elect of the Buffalo section of ASCE, helped implement many initiatives over the years that have assisted in making the experience of ASCE student members more productive. “The golf tournament, resume review course, shadow program, PR training seminars, an elementary school outreach program, monthly section meetings, budget meetings, younger member outreach and exit counseling groups, collaborative projects and, most recently, the UB Bulls football tailgate, have evolved into staples of the annual program between the Buffalo Section and Student Chapter,” said Havens.
He passed the advisor torch to his former mentee Van Oss, who presented him with the SEAS Mentor of the Year award this past spring. Havens continues to stay involved with his alma mater by serving on the SEAS Young Alumni Board.
Much hiring happens through the club, notes Snyder, as he is contacted regularly by employers interviewing students who list ASCE among their activities. “By being active in these clubs, you’re self-identifying as somebody who is not just showing up for class but rather it’s an indicator that you are really actively involved in your chosen line of work,” he said, adding, “You get the best students for this—they totally want to do it.”