“It felt like I had been broken up with,” Shauna Kean said.
The civil engineering senior and design captain of Cal Poly’s Steel Bridge Team had just discovered they’d been disqualified during the regional competition. She, along with the rest of her team, was devastated.
“That’s literally what it felt like because I love this project so much,” she said. “So someone saying that I tried to cheat, it’s very heartbreaking.”
The team, which puts in thousands of hours over the course of the year, is usually considered one of the best in the country at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Pacific Southwest Regional Conference, which was held April 2-5 at San Diego State University. The team was hoping to continue that success. Their bridge was strong and inexpensive, and their construction time was fast.
But the head judge thought differently.
The head judge has the power to disqualify a team if he feels they are “circumventing” the rules — essentially, cheating. However, according to civil engineering senior and fabrication captain Alan Blevins, the judge could not tell the team what rule they had broken.
The team appealed the decision immediately following the event.
What is steel bridge?
According to team co-advisor and structural engineering professor Eric Kasper, the team has been to every regional competition since 1998 and has placed in the top three in all but one. Normally, the team advances to the national competition.
Cal Poly’s region has approximately 18 schools and only the top three are eligible to go to nationals. The regional competitions take place all over the country, as well as parts of Canada and Mexico. Approximately 300 schools are narrowed down to 30 for nationals. Cal Poly has placed in the top five approximately half the time in the last decade, Kasper said.
Everyone invited to nationals receives a check for $500, which mostly goes toward travel expenses, Kaper said. First place gets $2,000, second gets $1,000 and third gets $500.
The bridge is judged on three facets: deflection (how much it sags after the bridge is loaded), total weight of the bridge and construction speed. If two schools are tied, the tiebreaker will be a score based on display. However, according to civil engineering senior and project manager Steven Barela, when you’re talking about millions of dollars — as these bridges are calculated to cost — display doesn’t mean that much.
This year’s bridge is approximately 17.5 feet long, 52 inches tall and weighs 91 pounds. It’s designed to hold 2,500 pounds, but hasn’t been tested past 2,400 pounds — and won’t be until after nationals, since the team doesn’t want to risk breaking it. It also has a 1.5-inch deflection.
The competition is meant to reflect the real world. For example, if a student drops a nut during the construction of their bridge, that act could cost the team approximately $10,000 (hypothetically) and detracts from their score. In the real world, if a worker is constructing a bridge over water and drops a piece of equipment, the company would have to send a diver down to retrieve it to minimize its environmental impact.
Cal Poly’s biggest competition every year has been University of California, Berkeley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Barela said.
The bridges are estimated to cost a certain amount, and being inexpensive boosts the team’s chance of winning. Cal Poly is approximately $200,000 behind Berkeley, which Barela said is not that far off. The team knows they can get at least $600,000 taken off its bridge by making it lighter and building it more quickly. Of course, Berkeley will make improvements as well, but according to Barela, the Cal Poly team should be able to “knock off enough” to be able to beat them.
Cal Poly’s team does well because of the “dedication of the students,” Kasper said. The advisors meet weekly to go over the students’ progress and answer technical questions, but mostly, Kasper said, the advisors (himself and structural engineering professor Garrett Hall) are hands-off.
Cal Poly seems to take the competition a little more seriously than other schools, Blevins said. For some, it’s a club or class. For three of the five captains, it’s their senior project.
“It seems like we actually care about it, we want to do well, go to nationals every year,” Blevins said. “I also think that Cal Poly has a really good set of machine shops that help us make a really good bridge.”
While both Kean and Blevins were devastated after being disqualified, Barela felt a different emotion: anger.
“Because we knew we were in the right,” Barela said. “And it just felt like, I almost want to say it felt like a witch hunt because it seemed like through the whole weekend the judges were just kind of after us and after everyone else during other competitions.”
One example Barela gave of poor judging was during the bridge construction segment of the competition. The team has runners going back and forth between the construction yard, and according to the rules, those runners are only allowed to carry one piece at a time. The runner for the first team that went grabbed two pieces, Barela said. That should have been a penalty, but the judges didn’t call it.
Even during tug-of-war — one of the intramural sports at the competition, along with ultimate Frisbee and basketball — “Cal Poly got screwed out of what they should have won,” Barela said.
“Emotions were — toward the end — it was just anger, frustration, and at the same time we knew we were in the right,” he said. “So we knew all we had to do was file the appeal and things would be good for us.”
And that appeal was approved.
Barela was home alone when he heard. He was so happy he started running around the house, screaming and yelling, he said.
“In fact, I was yelling and my neighbor peeked over the back fence and was like, ‘Is everything OK over there?’ and I was like, ‘Yes! Everything is more than OK right now!’”
So the team is headed to nationals. However, they have no idea how they did at regionals because of the disqualification. Currently, they are getting in contact with the Pacific Southwest Conference leaders to see if they can figure out how they would have done had they not been disqualified.
The team spoke with the leaders during regionals, Barela said, and found out they were receiving many complaints from other teams about the judges.
Nationals will take place in Ohio from May 22-24. Barela is confident the team will do well.
“We know we have a top three — if not No. 1 — bridge in the country,” Braela said.
Until then, the team is working on redesigning the bridge — getting the weight down, making the deflection smaller and practicing to construct it more quickly.
Additionally, the team will make sure they aren’t disqualified again.
“Obviously, the thing we got disqualified for, we’re going to make that a little more — obviously — not disqualifiable,” Kean said.