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Geeking Out Over Bridges: A Whirlwind Field Trip to New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania

This was a whirlwind field trip for Notre Dame’s Bridge Engineering Class, taught by Professor Ashley Thrall, to New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. They toured bridges they had learned about in class all semester, met with top bridge engineers and recent alums working in the field.

On family road trips, Dan Freiburger (CEEES ‘17) always advocates for detours to see bridges. His family, unenthusiastic about these side trips, reluctantly go along.

This past April, however, to his delight, Freiburger found himself in a group where he did not have to instigate the detour. With an extra hour to kill before heading to the airport, Professor Thrall suggested a side trip across the Bayonne Bridge and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Despite the prospect of heavy traffic and exorbitant tolls, the whole car enthusiastically agreed. Freiburger smiled, These people get it!

Washlesky snapped photos of the Verranzano-Narros from the back window of the van
Washlesky snapped photos of the Verrazano-Narrows from the back window of the van

“The trip is really about seeing the big picture of bridge engineering by visiting construction sites and speaking with leading designers,” explains Professor Ashley Thrall, who designed the course and organized the trip.  “It’s a unique opportunity to expose students to the state-of-the-art in the field and to show them the real-world challenges they’ll need to address in their careers.”

Ted Zoli, the National Bridge Chief Engineer and a Senior Vice President at HNTB Corporation, spoke to the group about the importance of fabrication and constructability in bridge design. Zoli, who has over 25 years of experience and has recently received the MacArthur Fellow Genius Grant and ENR magazine's Award of Excellence honor, shared his vision for the future of bridge engineering and discussed the role that bridges play in society, as connectors of people, trade, and ideas.

Over dinner, Chad Quaglia (CEEES M.S. ‘14), a bridge engineer for HNTB Corporation and Professor Thrall’s former Master’s Student, gave the students some perspective on starting out in the field of bridge design.

After their time with HNTB Corporation, the crew headed to Skanska’s Fabrication Shop in New Jersey. The shop, which lies on the Arthur Kill, is all about efficient fabrication and transportation. New parts can be instantly sent out by barge, truck or rail. That means that if something changes in a construction plan, the shop can often fabricate the new component that very day and ship it out immediately.

The engineers at Skanska told the students about some of the projects that they are working on. For instance, they are in the midst of raising the deck of the Bayonne Bridge to allow for larger boats to pass underneath. Students also heard about Skanska’s program for new graduates that allows them to work for six months in each of the company's major divisions to gain an understanding of the company as a whole before diving deep into one particular specialty.

After Skanska, the class got to meet with another young alum and bridge enthusiast Andrew Geisel (CEEES ‘16).

Geisel, who took the very same course last year, remembers it as hands down his favorite class at Notre Dame: “As someone who is a total nerd about bridges, getting to actually study the theory, physics and engineering behind their design was super interesting.”

Geisel, now a Field Engineer for Massman Construction Co., took the class on a tour of his worksite -- the new Goethals Bridge that is currently under construction. It’s a cable-stayed bridge, which will replace the existing truss bridge.

For Geisel it was exciting being on the flip-side this year -- giving a tour instead of listening to the tours. He enjoyed answering student questions and giving them what advice he could about embarking on their own careers.

Professor Thrall designed this course in 2012 with Dennis Murphy, a retired president of Kiewit Engineering Company and a 1971 Notre Dame alum. It is the first bridge engineering class offered at Notre Dame in recent history.

Professor Thrall explains, “This course tries to expose students to the broad field of bridge engineering -- typical prestressed concrete and steel bridges, as well as arch, cable-stayed and suspension forms -- in one holistic semester.”

Professor Thrall is the perfect person to teach this course because her passion for bridges runs deep. She explained, “My true love is bridges -- especially steel bridges.”

This love is apparent to her students. Ida Pakchanian (CEEES ‘17) confides that Professor Thrall has been her favorite professor at Notre Dame.

“She loves what she does and it’s very obvious. She goes over and beyond to make sure we make the connections we need to make, understand what we need to understand, and have the same appreciation for these structures that she does.”

Bridge Engineering is a small class -- this year it consisted of eight senior civil engineering students. Many of these students see bridges as their future.

After graduation Freiburger is starting a job in the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s bridge office. Classmate Savannah Washlesky (CEEES ‘, another self-described bridge nerd, is starting a Master’s in bridge design. Both see this class and field trip as linchpins in their journeys to becoming bridge engineers.

Freiburger laughs, “This class has been circled on my registration list for a long time now.”

 

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