Scaling the GeoWall Challenge

by Michael Mullaney on April 15, 2014

(Rensselaer civil engineering students shared some thoughts about their experience at the 2014 Geo-Wall competition, held this February in Atlanta by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The Rensselaer team placed third!)

Every year, Rensselaer Professor Tarek Abdoun encourages his students to form a team and participate in the GeoWall competition, which is held annually at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) GeoCongress conference.

The first step is for teams to submit a report describing their design of an earth retaining wall that is built using specific materials, is mechanically stable, and can sustain multiple loading phases. The competition parameters change from year to year, and this year required a rubber-sand mixture for backfill instead of regular sand. The Rensselaer team developed their model, made from the backfill, paper strips, and other materials, and tested it in the Institute’s soil mechanics lab. Following rough geotechnical calculations and engineering judgment, a simplified numerical model was developed to verify the design.

After submitting the report, the Rensselaer team was informed it ranked 4th and was invited to compete in Atlanta on February 24. Based on the quality of their report, the team also received a $2,000 grant for their traveling expenses.

The team members, all civil engineering students, reflected on their experience.

Nonika Antonaki | Graduate Student:

My advisor asked me to form a team and start designing a retaining wall for the competition. Having students that have already competed participate is always a smart move, so Arpana Sabu from the 2013 team was one of my first choices! Maria Hernandez had just started working on her master’s degree with Professor Abdoun and Adam Bryant, Megan Remsen, and Yiding Zhang were some of the students working in the Center for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, where I am conducting centrifuge tests for my doctoral degree. We started working hard immediately, beginning with running basic tests like direct shear tests for the backfill and finishing with constructing and painting our box for the competition! I had never worked so closely and regularly with a team. Everything from time management to task assignment was challenging but educational for me. The team chemistry was great and we were having fun every step of the way. Visiting Atlanta, attending the conference, interacting with students, professors and engineers from the industry and, of course, competing and placing third for the second year in a row was the highlight.

Maria Hernandez | Graduate Student:

The GeoChallenge student competition is much more than an academic challenge. It involves physical preparation and time organization. The most valuable thing is that a common goal is pursued via cooperation. The basis of our effort from the moment the rules are published until the day of the competition is team work. That is what makes the experience so interesting and enriching. I learnt a lot from working with each of the team members and we achieved our main goal, which was doing our best, together.

Arpana Sabu | Senior:

Being a part of GeoWall was one the most rewarding experiences of my Rensselaer career. My favorite part of this competition is the fact that it gives students an opportunity to use the basic engineering principles they learn in class and apply them to a given engineering situation. In addition, the collaboration of students promotes teamwork and learning. Attending the conference events also allowed the team to learn more about the advancements in the engineering profession and interact with other schools and companies. This competition gives students a taste of the professional engineering field and helps them think like practicing engineers to successfully meet the competition requirements.

Megan Remsen | Sophomore:

The GeoWall competition was the most fun project that I’ve gotten involved with since coming to Rensselaer. The conference was also great. It’s inspiring to see the professionals currently in the field and to be able to network with them and see what all of the different companies are working on. Friendly competition between schools working in the same field pushes us to discover new ideas and continue moving forward. Overall the experience was wonderful and I would love to participate again.

Adam Bryant | Junior:

One of the best parts of the GeoWall competition was attending the conference and being able to sit in on presentations about projects that are currently being conducted at other universities and firms. Being able to see the development of the geotechnical engineering field, and the application of such knowledge, helps tie the coursework required at Rensselaer to the real world. Many presentations displayed ideas that typically aren’t encountered in a classroom, providing a greater understanding of the opportunities a civil engineering degree can create.

Yiding Zhang | Junior:

For me, the most exhilarating part during the competition was the moment that I saw the wall made by our team had nearly no deformations after the entire loading process. The team spent a lot of time preparing for the competition, and we were all as devoted as we could. There was no bigger satisfaction than the result we finally got. Apart from that, I got an opportunity to apply skills learned in class to a real design, and this process greatly deepened my understanding and technical knowledge.