The Feel Of It

The APT conference this year, for the first time, had an engineering competition. Unlike engineer-society bridge competitions, this one had a historical component: the students’ bridges were supposed to represent the technology of the nineteenth century, in addition to being tested and measured for their load-carrying capabilities.

Here’s the Carleton University team’s bridge (and part of the team):


And here’s the Texas A&M University-Kingsville team’s bridge:


The details of the competition aside, there’s a bigger point here. It’s quite easy to get a degree in structural engineering without ever having seen the construction process firsthand. It’s normal to get a degree in engineering without having seen a design of your own constructed. This is a problem not just for the ego gratification of student engineers but for the engineering profession: constructability is as important to structural design as numerical analysis. A design on paper that cannot be built in reality is meaningless.

Competitions like this give students the opportunity to design a structure and then deal with the issues involved in building it. Those issues – including but not limited to slop in fit-up, connection details in three dimensions, eccentricity created by minimum practical dimensions at connections, and sequencing of construction – are part of real design and construction. The fact that this competition was run by the APT adds the issues created by age to the mix, including obsolete forms of design, and limitations of materials and construction techniques.

Based on my observation, I’d say that all of the students learned something about the translation of engineering designs to physical reality. And based on my positions on engineering practice and education, that’s the most valuable thing they could learn.