Civil Engineering - for the Win!

A team of NJIT civil engineering students won first place in the 2012 Concrete Canoe Competition.

It was a sweep of a weekend for NJIT’s civil engineering students: For the seventh consecutive year, the Steel Bridge Team won the Regional Steel-Bridge competition held Saturday, while the Concrete Canoe Team won the Regional Canoe competition on Sunday.  Both teams qualified to compete in upcoming national competitions.

“We swept the weekend it feels great to get the two wins,” said Kristina Ippolito, a civil engineering major who belongs to both teams.

The win for the Canoe Team was especially impressive, since NJIT hadn’t participated in the canoe competition for the last 10 years. Yet this newly revamped, 14-member team built a concrete canoe whose design and performance beat seasoned teams from Rutgers University, Stevens, The College of New Jersey and teams from five other universities.  Both the bridge and the canoe team belong to NJIT’s chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.  The ASCE sponsored the bridge competition, and NJIT sponsored the canoe contest.

The Steel Bridge Team has dominated the regional competition for nearly a decade but it nonetheless designed a bridge this year that was perhaps NJIT’s best. The light and strong and fast-to-assemble bridge won first-place awards in the categories of design, lightness, efficiency and economy as well as first-place overall.

“I’m super-proud of both teams,” said John Schuring, a professor of civil engineering and leading geotechnical engineer who advises the teams. “Civil engineering majors love working on hands-on projects.  They put in endless hours of work because they love to design and build, not because they are forced to join the teams. That’s the key to their success.”

Schuring noted that the seniors mentor the underclassmen, which results in camaraderie, team work and the passing of the torch of knowledge.  That’s particularly true of the Steel Bridge Team, he said, which has been competing successfully since the late 1990s, with each team learning from its predecessor and younger members on each team learning from senior members. As a result of that, he added, this year’s bridge is so innovative and that the bridge team has a good chance to place at the national steel bridge competition held Memorial Day Weekend at Clemson University.  

In essence, the bridge and canoe contests are where “engineering meets athletics,” Schuring said.  Like a baseball or a football team, the teams practice for months on executing their plans.  In August of 2011 the teams received specifications from the ASCE about how to build the bridges.  But there is room for creativity in the build, too, and the students spend months designing and building and practicing assembling the bridge.  But in the end they must perform well under the pressure of competition, which is part athleticism and part engineering.  

The Steel Bridge contest was held in the gym at the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn.  The eight teams were divided into runners and builders, with the runners 50 feet away from the builders.  When the judges said “go,” the runners jogged the bridge parts over to the builders, who were in a restricted area. The teams were timed on their builds, and their assembled bridges were evaluated in several categories.

NJIT’s bridge team was the first to go.  A large group of supporters -- NJIT students, professors and past members of the bridge team -- were on the sidelines cheering the team, which had two runners and four builders. The team worked fast and efficiently, assembling the bridge in 10 minutes. Their effort led to a first place win for NJIT, defeating other top-ranked universities such as Columbia, Cooper Union, and NYU Polytechnic Institute.

“All of on the team feel that this been the most rewarding experience of our lives,” said Co-captain Tom Woloszyn, a senior majoring in civil engineering.  “We learned to work as a team and we’ve become friends.  We got to know our professors better and we worked closely with our company sponsors, which has led to some of us getting great jobs.”

Andrew Flory, the team’s other co-captain, was hired recently by Schiavone Construction Company, a long-time corporate sponsor (two other corporate partners who have supported the team over the last decade are Acrow Bridge and Milton Steel). Over the past year, he’s worked closely with engineers at the company, who helped the team fabricate steel in its Newark plant.  The company’s engineers were so impressed with Flory, especially his work on the bridge team, that they hired him.

“We volunteer to work on the bridge team -- we don’t get class credit for it,” said Flory. “We do it because we love it and that’s what’s allowed us to push ourselves so hard for this win.  Also, the main factor in my getting the job at Schiavone was my work on the bridge team.”

And many of the steel bridge team alumni who came to support the team had the same experience; it was their work for the team that helped them get their current jobs. Giancarlo Fricano was co-captain of the bridge team for two years: 2009 and 2010.  He now works as a superintendent engineer for Schiavone, a job that he, like Flory, got in large part due to his work on the bridge team.  This year, Fricano was one of Schiavone’s advisers for bridge team.  Tien Tran, who was co-captain of the team with Fricano in 2010, now works as a field engineer for EE Cruz and Company, a South Plainfield-based heavy construction firm. He too says the work he did on the bridge team while a student was what impressed EE Cruz. And the same goes for Keith Corkery, the 2011 steel bridge team captain, who works as a safety engineer for Turner Construction.  Working on the bridge team, Corkery said, helped him get his job and taught him what he needed to know to succeed at it.

“Being on the team taught me team work, problem solving, time management and how to work with vendors,” said Corkery. “That’s what you need to know to do well in engineering.”

Given that it’s a revamped team, the Concrete Canoe team did not have former team members there to support them.  Nevertheless about 50 supporters gathered under tents in the drenching rain to watch the team members row its canoe across Cook’s pond in Denville, N.J., the site of the contest.

The canoe was judged in several categories, one of which was how fast team members rowed it across the pond in both a sprint (200 yards) and an endurance race (800 yards).  The men’s team took second place in both race categories, and also placed highly in the three other categories; a research paper outlining their design of the canoe; a presentation about their design; and a display of the canoe’s mold. The races amounted to 25 points, with the three other categories accounting for 75 points. 

“NJIT placed second or third in all four categories and that’s what gave them the win,” said Anthony Massari, a senior engineer at Thornton Tomasetti who judged the contest.  Massari, who graduated from NJIT in 2007 with a degree in civil engineering, is also a former captain of the Steel Bridge Team.  And he, too, said his experience on the team helped him get the internship that lead to him getting his job. “When I interviewed to become an intern here at Thornton Tomasetti," Massari said, "the steel bridge team was a project I was able to correlate to real engineering, which helped aid in my discussions in the interview process.”

Rocco Cerami, the captain of the canoe team, said when Massari announced NJIT as the winner, he could not believe it. His parents and teammates rushed to congratulate him, but Rocco walked out of the tent and into rain, speechless and pacing, his eyes tearing up.  He was overcome with excitement and exhaustion – he had four hours sleep all weekend – and was momentarily speechless.  Later, he explained how he started work on the canoe in November of 2011, at first alone and later, as interest in the canoe team grew, with dedicated teammates. He recalled how for months he and his teammates worked on the canoe five days a week for a few hours, and all day Saturday and Sunday.  And how the project started out as a mere idea, then grew into a design, then into a mold and finally into the canoe that won the day.

“When the judge said NJIT was the overall winner I was in disbelief, “said Cerami, a senior who also was hired by Schiavone as a result of his work on the canoe team.  “I heard our name but could not believe it.  It meant that all those days and night of hard work was not for nothing -- that it all paid off.  I don’t have the words to express how happy I am that, in the end, all the hard work paid off.”

By Robert Florida