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Students handle stress of national competition

No matter how helpful a course is, says Chris Trautner, real-world experience is more invaluable.

Trautner and three other Lehigh students learned this recently after pooling their engineering skills to win a national design competition sponsored by the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI).

Trautner ’07, Tim Cullen ’07, Cliff Jones ’07 and Tanya Wulf ’07 won the Innovative Design portion of PCI’s Big Beam Contest last summer. The team, advised by Clay Naito, Ph.D, P.E., assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, received $2,000 and other prizes.

The objectives of the contest were to fabricate and test a prestressed concrete beam with help from a precast concrete producer. Prestressed concrete is concrete that is compressed with heavily loaded wires or bars to reduce or eliminate cracking and tensile forces.

The contest was organized by PCI’s student education committee and sponsored by Sika Corp.

Trautner’s team competed against multiple teams from larger schools. Their semester-long project was a one-credit option. This year, Naito hopes to make the project a requirement for his prestressed concrete class.

The competition requires teams to design and test a prestressed concrete beam. After a team designs its beam, a PCI sponsor builds the beam and the students test it at their school. Trautner’s team chose the High Concrete Group, a national company with regional headquarters in Denver, Pa., as its sponsor and conducted tests at Lehigh’s Fritz Lab.

The Lehigh team used carbon fiber mesh and very little steel, a composition which helps prevent corrosion and which cuts costs because of steel’s expense. They were able to do this because the beam’s shape puts most of the strength in the center and small amounts on the ends. This structure allowed for the best support, because when stress is applied, it goes through the beam radially instead of concentrating in one area. Their beam handled 37,500 pounds.

If they were to do the project again, team members said, they would ask for advice from someone in the field with more experience and they would attempt to communicate better with fabricators. Their major challenge, they said, was that their idea was simple but the calculations were difficult.

“You can never get anything perfect,” Trautner said.

But Naito said the project was a good experience because it allowed the students to go from design to construction to testing and thus from a concept to a proof of concept.

“My students were in the top five percent of their class last year, so they didn’t need much help,” said Naito.

Trautner said it was rewarding to win the competition. Jones agreed, adding, “We had an innovative design. It is used in industry, but not in the way we used it.”

Trautner and Jones are now pursuing master’s degrees at Lehigh, expecting to graduate in May 2009. Cullen attends graduate school part-time at Lehigh while working three days a week for High Concrete. Wulf is pursuing a master’s in mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

Natalia Krepak ’08

Posted on Monday, October 29, 2007

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