UAF steel bridge team earns spot in national finals

The UAF steel bridge team sitting on their bridge
Photo courtesy of Madelin Weeks
The UAF steel bridge team poses for a photo at the Southwest regional competition in Las Vegas. From left, Wilhelm Muench (faculty advisor), Branden Hansen, Heather McKenzie, Cynan Hellman, Haylie Cortez, Lucas Gomes, Porter Baffrey, Jenna Hernandez, Ben VanderHart, Zach Miller, Zach Stanish and Madelin Weeks.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks steel bridge team is headed back to familiar territory — the national championships.

The UAF squad earned the top score last month in the Pacific Northwest Regional AISC Student Steel Bridge Competition, finishing in first place in five of the six judging categories. The annual engineering contest, which is sponsored by the American Institute of Steel Construction, challenges students to design and build a steel bridge. Judges evaluate their work using several criteria, including strength, efficiency and construction speed.

The first-place regional finish earned UAF a spot in the national finals, which will be held on May 27-28 at Virginia Tech University. UAF has advanced to the championship round in six of the last seven competitions.

Even with that legacy, this has been a particularly good year for UAF. 

Members of the UAF team building their bridge
UAF photo by Leif Van Cise
Zach Miller, front, and Branden Hansen help build UAF’s steel bridge entry during the Pacific Northwest regional competition on April 10.

The team, eager to take a trip after two years of pandemic restrictions, was disappointed to learn that the Pacific Northwest competition in Vancouver, British Columbia, on April 10 would be held virtually. So they decided to compete as an unofficial entry in the Southwest regional in Las Vegas a few days later  — and claimed the top score in that one, too.

Those successes have the team confident that it is capable of winning a national title, said team captain Ben VanderHart. UAF is typically a top-10 finisher at nationals, but hasn’t won the title since 1993.

VanderHart, a new graduate of UAF’s civil engineering program and the designer of this year’s entry, said the squad will spend the weeks ahead fine-tuning their bridge to better compete with the best teams in the country.

“Steel bridge has been the highlight of college — I’m sure I’ve spent more time on it than my classes,” he said with a laugh. “A win at nationals, or at least a top-3 performance, would be a great cap to my college career.”