Historic year not over for UB teams in civil engineering competitions

Two male students one in the foreground and one in the background drill a bridge. onlookers stand behind them.

University at Buffalo students construct the team's steel bridge in front of an audience at the 2023 Upstate New York-Canada ASCE Student Symposium. Photo: Doug Levere

By Peter Murphy

Published May 26, 2023

The three teams in the University at Buffalo’s American Society of Civil Engineers club had their most successful finishes in any academic year. 

“So far, it has been a very successful year, but let’s not count our chickens before they’ve hatched. We still have nationals for bridge and canoe, but everyone has put in a tremendous amount of work. ”
Daniella Kata, President

The seismic design team finished second in its international competition and was first in the United States, marking the team’s best finish ever. The steel bridge and concrete canoe teams, also part of UB’s American Society of Civil Engineers (UB ASCE) club, both earned first place in their competitions at the regional symposium, and UB ASCE earned first place overall.

UB ASCE’s responsibilities in the competitions were increased this year as it hosted nine colleges and universities at UB during the Upstate New York-Canada ASCE Student Symposium.

“UB has placed first for steel bridge in the region for the past few years, and concrete canoe is heading to nationals for the third year in a row, but their first place finish this year matches their best since 2016,” says Daniella Kata, civil engineering junior and president of UB ASCE. “All of our teams have shown a lot of growth. The seismic design team placed 17th last year and moved all the way up to second this year.”

Last month, UB ASCE’s seismic design team participated in the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute’s undergraduate seismic design competition. Each year, teams build a model of a tower as if it were to be built in the host city.

Teams need to name and develop a theme for their tower and build a model that is structurally sound. This year, UB’s team traveled to San Francisco and took inspiration from the host city for their tower’s name. 

Several University at Buffalo students stand surrounding their balsa wood tower for the seismic design competition.

The seismic design team sits surrounding Envolviendo-Dos Towers. 

“This year’s tower was Envolviendo-Dos Towers. San Francisco is a city with Spanish heritage, so it was fitting to use Spanish words in the towers’ name,” says Eric Maier, seismic design project manager and senior civil engineering student. “‘Envolviendo’ means ‘to wrap around.’ We had spiraling greenery wrapping up the faces of our tower. ‘Dos’ means two in Spanish and represents the two towers that were joined together by sky bridges.”

Teams are scored on various aspects of their tower design and model, which undergoes a simulated earthquake test on a small shake table. The team used balsa wood and fast-drying glue to build its towers and incorporated duct tape and fishing wire as part of the towers’ damping system, meant to dissipate the simulated earthquake energy. The team finished third in the shake table testing, but its performance in the other categories earned UB ASCE’s seismic design team second place in the overall competition, a significant feat, according to Alex Weik, seismic design team project manager and senior civil engineering student.

“Due to our club members’ efforts this year, there was not much to worry about when we set up the tower on the first day of the competition,” Weik says. “Shake day was very exciting, but the biggest moment of the competition was finding out we placed first in the nation and second in the world. This is the best finish ever for a seismic design team at UB. We are now a powerhouse of the competition.”

Building on success

During the last three regional competitions, UB ASCE’s steel bridge team finished in first place three times, and the concrete canoe finished first in 2021, second in 2022 and first again this year.

Each team has built momentum during the last several symposiums, and, according to concrete canoe design team project manager and senior civil engineering student Meghan Pauley, a pandemic-related reset gave members an opportunity to get back to the basics on some of the tasks associated with the concrete canoe build.

“When our competition moved online for 2021, that really shook up the momentum and acted as a reset since only a small section of the team was around for the in-person build the year before,” Pauley says. “Coming out for the 2022 competition, we had almost no construction experience, and that year was all about getting our footing back—in terms of what needed to be designed and made—in order to compete in our regional symposium.”

Each year, teams are given a set of rules on how to design their canoe and for the kind of concrete mix they can develop. Teams are judged based on their canoe display and presentation and earn points during the concrete canoe races at the symposium. According to Pauley, this year’s canoe is modelled mostly after the 2022 canoe that also took 14th in the national competition, with a few changes. The mix design is different, and the hull (body) of the canoe is wider to make it easier to paddle. The team brought some of the lessons and examples learned during the regional and national competitions in 2022 to its 2023 design.

Two canoes with two riders each pass each other on Lake LaSalle. The columns of Baird Point stand tall in the distance.

Members of the concrete canoe team paddle Darryl The Barryl in Lake LaSalle. Photo: Doug Levere

“Last year’s national competition provided us a lot of inspiration for our design this year and gave us a good picture of what it means to be a nationally competitive team,” Pauley says. “We tested twelve different mixes to determine what would work best in accordance with the rules. Our hull design was based on what paddlers preferred from last year. We got a lot of inspiration seeing other teams at the 2022 national competition and were able to include that as our display setup came to life throughout the year.”

Each team also develops a theme and name for their canoe. UB’s team went with “Darryl The Barryl” for the name and incorporated that into its theme.

“Our theme was a barrel going over Niagara Falls. With the regional symposium being in Buffalo this year, we wanted to tie our theme to something significant in the area. We knew the theme was going to be a barrel going over Niagara Falls, and picked the name ‘Darryl’ because it rhymes with barrel, which we found very amusing.”

UB ASCE’s concrete canoe design team will compete in the national competition on June 10-12, at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

The steel bridge design team needed to make significant adjustments to its project between 2022 and 2023, as well, according to Andrew Ralicki, a senior civil engineering student and steel bridge project manager.

“This year’s rules called for the longest span we have ever had. It’s required to span 23 feet compared to last year, where the longest span was 16 feet,” Ralicki says. “Last year’s bridge was an under truss and this year’s bridge is an over truss.”

The steel bridge team also brought inspiration from other bridges at the 2022 regional and national competitions into its 2023 design. The main factor behind changes, though, according to Ralicki, was the increase in bridge span. The team wanted to create the strongest bridge possible, even if that would increase the weight. Team members spent more time developing the components that make up the bridge.

“We were the second-best build team in the country last year, in part, due to the easy constructability of our connections. These inspired our choice to use similar connections,” Ralicki says. “We also found some inspiration from other schools from last year’s national competition.”

The steel bridge design team competes in the national competition on June 2 – 3, at the University of California, San Diego. Between now and then, they will make adjustments with an eye on a strong finish in the national competition.

“We will be practicing our build for at least three hours every day,” Ralicki says. “Our first goal is to reduce our build time. We will also redesign a connection by adding an additional bolt in some locations to make the bridge stiffer.”

Hosting a symposium

“The amount of preparation and efficiency of their operation astounded me; when I was an undergraduate student carrying a full course load, I was lucky to make it to class on time,” says Alan Rabideau, professor and chair in the UB Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. “The event went off without a hitch, with the students serving as the best possible ambassadors for UB engineering and setting an example for other student clubs. I am very tempted to start a new consulting firm by hiring the entire ASCE club!”

UB hosted the Upstate New York-Canada ASCE Student Symposium for the first time since 2016. In addition to inviting mentors, conducting professional workshops, and managing other annual responsibilities, UB ASCE had to also plan the symposium while competing in the seismic design, concrete canoe and steel bridge competitions. After finding out they were going to host the 2023 symposium, UB ASCE named Sean Crowell, senior civil engineering student, and Josh Cardamone, junior civil engineering student, conference chairs.

“Planning for this symposium started around this time last year. Sean and I were elected and created our symposium student planning committee where tasks were delegated to ASCE club members,” Cardamone says. “At the end of August, we began having regular meetings with our student planning committee every two weeks to review what had been accomplished and what new tasks needed to be completed.”

A gymnasium with rubber matts covering most of the floor. Several people walk around and hardly anyone is in the bleachers. Bridge and construction equipment are placed throughout.

Several teams prepare for their bridge build in Alumni Arena. Photo: Doug Levere

The committee met biweekly and met monthly with the regional championship support team – a group of ASCE officials who help host schools plan their symposiums. Aside from planning, the committee had to transport weights, plywood and other required materials into Alumni Arena ahead of the bridge build competition and concrete canoe displays. UB ASCE club members also coordinated with clubs from other universities and judges to finalize the schedule and ensure the symposium ran smoothly.

“Our biggest takeaway was seeing all the work that goes into hosting something on this scale,” Crowell says. “There were so many little things that needed to be considered throughout this entire process that we never would have considered. How much food to order, how to account for different allergies and diets, how to coordinate and effectively manage large groups of volunteers and how to ensure you don’t go over budget throughout the process.”

Between the three teams, this is the most success UB ASCE has experienced in any academic year. With nationals still ahead, however, the club is taking nothing for granted.

“So far, it has been a very successful year, but let’s not count our chickens before they’ve hatched,” Kata says. “We still have nationals for bridge and canoe, but everyone has put in a tremendous amount of work, and all of our teams have done even better than usual.”