NEW ORLEANS — Yelitza Cedeño was enthralled. The furious, but focused activity in the college’s structure lab arena was fascinating to Cedeño, who was president of the University of New Orleans student chapter of American Society of Civil Engineers.
“I just saw students running in the arena and they were building something,” Cedeño recalled. “I was like, ‘What is going on? They were so focused … they were putting bolts in stuff. They were drilling.”
Cedeño, who was at Auburn University for the 2022 student concrete canoe competition, was exploring other areas when she happened upon the steel bridge competition. She’d never seen it before because COVID-19 had restricted competitions and travel.
“It was love at first sight,” Cedeño said laughing. “I went to my faculty adviser and said, ‘I’m going to be captain of the steel bridge competition next year!’”
That “wild statement” as Cedeño describes it, set in motion a nearly yearlong process that included assembling a team, securing materials and designing and fabricating a 23-foot-long steel bridge intended for pedestrian and motorists to cross a 7-foot river.
The American Institute of Steel Construction and American Society of Civil Engineers sponsor the steel bridge competition as an annual event intended to demonstrate knowledge and skills of future generation design professionals.
At the ASCE 2023 Gulf Coast Student Symposium, held March 9-11 at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, UNO’s team beat out 15 other universities from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
The team included: Gavin Trinh, Maria Umanzor, Perry Newman, Cedeño, Steven Hernandez, all civil engineer majors and Francisco Espinoza and Alonso Milon, who are majoring in construction management.
Cedeño was team captain and project manager—one with very little experience, she said.
“None of us had any experience,” said Cedeño, noting the last time the University of New Orleans competed in the contest was in 2018. “So, we were starting from nothing. A brand-new team.”
Cedeño did tap into the knowledge of a former UNO steel bridge competition captain and even talked with other competing schools to get information. Her team worked on the project from November to mid-February.
“This is extracurricular, this is on top of class, jobs, etc.,” Cedeño said. “We were doing this because we love it. We came in on weekends or in between classes. It was a lot of work.”
The competition includes structural costs based on total weight; construction cost based on the number of builders in a timed race to erect the bridge; and safety, with time penalties for dropping bolts, nuts or tools and stepping outside the construction zone or in the river. Aesthetics and the use of materials that promote robustness without wastefulness are also judged in overall performance.
UNO was up against some veteran teams, Cedeño said. The top two finishers in the competition would advance to the national competition in California.
“From the start we knew we had two rivals. One that always dominated this area: LSU, and then we saw another rival was the University of South Alabama—the host,” Cedeño said.
The Region 5 competition was the first one held, and UNO was tagged as the first team to compete, she said.
“We were the newbies! We didn’t have any experience last year and we didn’t even get to see another team do it,” Cedeño said. “It was crazy … we did our best.”
The competition allows for 30 minutes. UNO’s construction time was 20 minutes. Then the bridge’s structural design was tested by adding weight during the lateral load test. They passed “with flying colors,” Cedeño said.
“We went to the vertical load test, the bridge had to hold 2,500 pounds with a maximum deflection of 3 ½ inches,” she said. “We had 1.05 inches, so that’s like 1 inch compared to the 3, so we were good!”
South Alabama swept through the construction, doing well as expected. Cedeño and her teammates watched from the sidelines as LSU worked quickly on the floor. They completed construction in 15 minutes with no penalties, confirming why they were considered a dominant team in the region.
“Their time was ridiculous … then they passed the lateral test,” Cedeño said.
Then came the vertical load test. The team must add 12.5-pound angle weights to the bridge until it reaches the maximum load of 2,500 pounds. The LSU team had added all but five of its angles and the arena had grown quiet, Cedeño recalled.
“Then the bridge broke. Their bridge—broke,” Cedeño said, still amazed several months later. “We have a chance to go to nationals!”
As it turns out, the UNO team not only earned its ticket to nationals, but the team also won the overall competition and placed first or second in a majority of the categories.
“This is a very special win since it is the first time competing in steel bridge since 2018,” said Gianna Cothren, professor of civil engineering and ASCE faculty adviser. “With their best design, many hours of welding and construction, and a last week of practice in our structures lab basement, our team pulled off the unusual feat of winning first place overall with no experience.”
“We received many congratulations and awe from other universities that usually dominate this event,” Cothren said.
Though UNO’s civil engineering program is small relative to some of the universities they competed against, Cothren said they were fortunate to have strong support from UNO President John Nicklow, Dr. Robert A. Savoie College of Engineering Dean Lizette Chevalier and the local civil engineering industry.
“Our students have unbelievable perseverance to make things happen,” Cothren said.
Cedeño, who graduated in May, said she is pleased with her team’s accomplishments and the legacy they’ve left for others, although they did not win at nationals.
“I’m proud to say that I have created a path for the next people to come,” she said.
UNO will host the 2024 ASCE Gulf Coast Student Symposium on March 7-11. The event will include the steel bridge, concrete canoe, surveying and sustainability competitions, along with several other competitive civil engineering events.