Bridging the Gap to Place First in Nationals: UF’s Steel Bridge Team Rises to the Top

The University of Florida’s Eckhoff Steel Bridge team rose to the unique challenges of 2020 and placed first in the American Institute of Steel Construction’s Student Steel Bridge National Competition. The national competition had over 100 teams around the country compete at regionals to win one of the 25 spots for nationals with results announced on June 3.

This year’s competition had a different setup than previous years. Teams had the opportunity to compete from campus, which allowed students to participate in a safe environment that adheres to the university’s COVID protocols with trained judges visiting campus for the competition.

This year’s win comes in stark contrast to last year’s disappointment.

Last year, the team worked eight months on the design and fabrication of the truss bridge, but as they were packing up to leave for the competition, regional and national competitions were cancelled because of the pandemic. The team was undeterred. Daniel Solano, last year’s project manager, worked tirelessly throughout the summer and fall to advance the team’s design process and provide strong mentorship to the incoming team.

“There were questions whether we would be able to make a bridge at all due to the pandemic. Compared to other years, we had less time to work and fewer people able to help due to lab restraints,” said Brian Roche, the team’s deputy project manager. “We had to work a lot harder to get everything done with COVID precautions and it would not have been possible without our other team members and advisors, especially our faculty advisor Dr. Rawlinson.”

The Steel Bridge team had logistical challenges, such as rigorous occupational restrictions in the lab, limited operation hours, and physical distancing in order to keep team members and lab staff safe. Additionally, a competition rule clarification required a complete redesign of the bridge in order to contend at nationals.

“This win is one of the greatest accomplishments in my life thus far. I was not only able to lead a team with the help of the other leadership and advisors by my side but was able to do it differently than has been done in the past. We worked on restructuring leadership roles to get more people involved and share responsibilities. When I look back on this accomplishment, I can also say that it was all done during a pandemic, which adds even more value to this win because of all of the changes, sacrifices, and difficulties that were encountered on this journey to be No. 1 in the nation,” added Huzaifa Lukmanji, the team Project Manager.

They placed first Overall and first in Construction Speed and Economy competitions, with top 20 finishes in the Lightness and Efficiency categories. In a year that emphasized construction speed, the assembly team of Huzaifa Lukmanji, Brian Roche and Fletcher D’Arcy put together the bridge in 1:49, 11 seconds faster than reigning back-to-back champion Lafayette College.

“They put in long hours between regionals and nationals, they worked in the heat at the Coastal Engineering Laboratory, which is a large warehouse without air conditioning. They were able to reduce their time from four builders at over 4 minutes to three builders at 1:49,” said Taylor Rawlinson, Ph.D., the faculty advisor.

This is the Steel Bridge team’s third national championship win, the previous ones were in 1997 and 2015, with a recent second place finish in 2019.

“This team has shown tremendous resilience in a year that was very difficult to recruit without the opportunity to travel to competition and with operational constraints due to COVID. I look forward to next year and continuing to build a strong team culture that produces quality engineers that can design, fabricate and manage a project from start to finish,” Dr. Rawlinson said.