Tufts team competes in national bridge design contest

For the first time in 20 years, a Tufts team qualified for the AISC student steel bridge design contest’s national competition.
From left to right: Mandy Sit, Griffin Davis, Gonzalo Marroquin, and Oakley Winters.
From left to right: Mandy Sit, E23, Griffin Davis, E25, Gonzalo Marroquin, E24, and Oakley Winters, E26.

By Cansu Birsen, E25

The American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) Student Steel Bridge Competition provides an opportunity for civil engineering students to extend their classroom knowledge to real-life challenges. In preparation for the competition, student teams spend the better part of an academic year planning how to design and fabricate a scale model of a bridge. Then at the competition, the teams assemble their models under time constraints and spatial limitations, and the models are tested to support loads. Models are also judged for aesthetics and overall weight.  

The Tufts team of 19 civil engineering majors placed second overall at the April 2023 northeast regional competition hosted at Northeastern University, including a first-place finish in the category of cost estimation. That showing won a spot for the team in the national competition, marking the first time a Tufts team qualified for nationals in 20 years. With support from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, faculty and advisors, fundraising sponsors, fabricators, and the full team, five team members traveled to San Diego in June to compete against 43 teams from across the country.

In San Diego, the bridges were put on public display and while the judges assessed bridge aesthetics, Tufts team members networked with other teams and studied their bridges. “We learned from the designs and best practices of other teams at the competition. Our team is composed of students from each school year; thus we will be able to use our knowledge gained to improve our bridges for many years to come,” the team wrote in a recap of the event. 

During the competition, four builders from the Tufts team assembled the bridge in under 24 minutes. Under 2,500 pounds of load, the 23-foot-long bridge deflected, on average, 1.34 inches per stringer. The team ultimately placed 28th among the top teams in the country.

One of the team captains, Kevin Zhang, E23, reflected on this year’s bridge planning and construction process: “We were able to bring a lot of new faces, from all years, to our first meetings. Everyone was at different skill levels so we spent the first meetings brainstorming bridge designs.” The team welcomed ideas from all members and provided learning opportunities for those less familiar with the basics of steel bridge design. 

One of the team’s mentors, Dan Valentine, E95, EG95, a Tufts steel bridge competition alum who's now a professional engineer at SGH, contributed a key idea to the final design of the bridge. The team hit a point where all their designs faced varying issues like buckling or localized bending. Valentine “proposed a solution that was brilliantly simple - take our through truss design, and flip it upside down!” says Zhang. Using Valentine’s suggestion, the team redid the model, and Zhang credits the design as “the most optimal of our designs - the one that was the most structurally stable and efficient, while also being the simplest and quickest to build during the competition.”

According to Professor of the Practice Brian Brenner of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who was one of the mentors for the team, the competition "is terrific in all ways, educationally but also as a project and group experience." He emphasized the dedication and time students are required to invest to be a part of this program. Brenner and Valentine were among several faculty members and industry members to mentor the team, providing an opportunity for students to interact with and learn from experienced professionals. Other mentors included Professor Masoud Sanayei and part-time lecturer, and structural engineer at HNTB, Ryan Marshall, both of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Co-captain Mandy Sit, E23, says, “[Our mentors] were all extremely helpful and met with us every other week for updates and to provide feedback on our work.” 

While this was the first Tufts team in two decades to reach the national competition, team members hope that they will be the first of many years to come. In addition to providing the opportunity to apply classroom knowledge to something physical and tangible, Sit credits the experience with helping her grow as a leader. One of the highlights was “being able to communicate with underclassmen and people you otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to know,” she says.

Sit wasn't the only co-captain to point to those interpersonal moments as a pinnacle of the experience. “Watching new team members gaining skills and confidence has been the most rewarding part of my experience on the team, and something that I’ll always remember,” says Zhang.

The School of Engineering congratulates the team and looks forward to witnessing team members' continued achievements!

The Tufts team included:

  • Abigail Imiolek, E23 (Co-Captain)
  • Taylor Kishinami, E23 (Co-Captain)
  • Milli Lu, E23 (Co-Captain)
  • Mandy Sit, E23 (Co-Captain, Builder)
  • Vicky Yang, E23 (Co-Captain)
  • Kevin Zhang, E23 (Co-Captain)
  • Dennis Bazan, E24
  • Eric Cheung, E25
  • Griffin Davis, E25 (Builder)
  • Alyssa Dhalla, E24
  • Mauricio Gutierrez, E24
  • Sophia Lauterbach, E25
  • Gail Lim, E25
  • Lily Liu, E25
  • Gonzalo Marroquin, E24 (Builder)
  • Anju Meyer, E25
  • Eileen Ong, E23
  • Adrian Sak, E26
  • Oakley Winters, E26 (Builder)