This is an archived article.

April 29, 1997

The UW’s super-spanners set their sights on becoming the nation’s champion bridge builders

She’s only 22, but already Cheryl Burwell, a University of Washington senior, is a champion bridge builder. A month ago, Burwell and her team of nine other civil engineering seniors, showed their mettle, as well as their metal, with an upset victory at the regional bridge-building championships in Alaska.

Now they are aiming to become the 1997 national champions at the Steel Bridge Building Competition in Pomona, Calif., on Memorial Day week-end. “We think we have the best-looking bridge because everything about it is round and smooth and slips together so well,” says a confident Burwell, whose family lives in Edmonds.

The competition, sponsored by the American Institute of Steel Construction, gets tougher every year as civil engineering students from across the country compete to build the strongest, best designed and best looking bridge. The UW’s victory in Anchorage on March 28 was notable because the team beat out the favorites, “arch”-rival the University of Alaska, last year’s national champions.

The competition is also a test of stamina. Teams are timed on assembling their bridges, with penalties for breaking any of a host of complex rules, such as not dropping any parts or tools. “It’s nerve- wracking,” says Burwell. Although all 10 members of the team designed and fabricated the bridge, only four perform the actual assembly in competition. These flying four have their assembly time down to an incredible 9 1/2 minutes, bolts and nuts included.

In that brief time, the team must assemble a bridge, 20 feet long, 3 1/2 feet wide and 4 feet high, made up of 52 closely machined steel parts, not including the bolts. The bridge must sit on abutments 19 feet apart that span an imaginary river. The bridge builders must not cross the river during assembly, and must carry most parts, one at a time, from a nearby staging yard. The completed UW bridge weighs just 89 pounds, but is well capable of meeting the competition’s rigorous demands of supporting a weight of up to 2,500 pounds.

The four students who perform this exhausting feet of organization and dexterity are Burwell, Greg Coons, from Seattle, Ferron Smith, from Kent, and Aaron Morris, from Longbranch.

The team’s immediate problem is how to pay the $4,000 cost of taking the bridge and the 10 team members to Pomona for the finals. The students are planning fund-raising events, and are seeking company sponsorships. “Our victory in Alaska seems to have impressed a lot of people,” says a hopeful Burwell.

The team must also keep a close eye on the 23-page rule book, which seems to be ever-changing. Before the UW seniors went to Alaska, the rules appeared not to demand nuts for the bridge bolts. When they arrived, the nuts were in the rules. That, says Burwell, “meant a late-night run to the hardware store.”

Burwell can be reached at cburwell@u.washington.edu

The six other team members are: Christi Moris, from Burien; Mike Ekshtut; Som Lalitkomol; Amy Skare, from Shelton; Wade Damey, from Kent; and Daniel Axelrod, from Kent.

###