Civil engineering competition boosts MSU student confidence

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MSU students practiced on the MSU campus in January for the Associated Schools of Construction’s Region 6 and 7 student competition in Reno, Nev.

Montana State University senior Hunter Hessian and his five teammates were in their hotel room in Reno, Nev., when someone knocked on the door at 6 a.m., handed them a flash drive and gave them 16 hours to complete a task that even the largest construction companies would conduct over weeks, if not months. Among the members of the team were Zac Birdinground, a student from Benteen in Big Horn County.

On the flash drive were 3,600 pages of construction documents for a 41-story Honolulu high-rise containing residential apartments, a supermarket and a parking garage. Hessian’s team had until 10 p.m. to sift through the blueprints, make a construction plan and bid on its cost.

The high-rise had in fact already been built – by the same contractors who would evaluate the MSU team’s bid when they presented it. Theirs so closely matched the real-world counterpart that they won second place in their category – “mixed use,” defined as blending large-scale residential and commercial development – at the Associated Schools of Construction’s Region 6 and 7 student competition.

“The reward is incredible,” said Hessian of the event, which brought together teams from dozens of universities across a 13-state area that includes California, Colorado and Washington.

Hessian, a Bigfork native who is majoring in construction engineering technology in MSU’s Department of Civil Engineering in the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, said his team met several times per week to prepare for the competition by analyzing construction bids and compiling information about materials and construction costs.

“You get to figure out what people’s strengths are, how they can best contribute on that day,” said Hessian, the team captain. “Every single person counts. That’s what’s cool about it – it’s a team effort.”

Gunnar Furstenberg was co-captain of the MSU team that competed in the event’s “heavy civil” category. Their bid of $8 million for demolishing and rebuilding a 130-foot-long bridge over a tidal bay in Hawaii deviated only 10 percent from the project’s actual cost.

“You feel the pressure when you’re in the room, the deadline comes up really quickly,” said Furstenberg, a senior from Billings who is majoring in construction engineering technology. “Before this I don’t think I’d done anything for 16 hours straight, not even sleep.”

The competition is combined with a conference and career fair in which the students hand out their resumes and interview with potential employers.

“The industry people want these students, because they know they’re the best,” said MSU civil engineering instructor Bret Martin, the faculty adviser to the teams.

Martin teaches the ECIV 492 course, which culminates with the MSU teams traveling to Reno each year. “The class is pretty much about getting them ready for the competition,” Martin said. “They learn an immense amount in a short time.”

Furstenberg said the class and competition are unsurpassed in terms of preparing students for the real-world experience of working at a major construction company.

“It’s a huge confidence boost,” he said. “It kind of wraps up the entire undergraduate experience, and lets you know that we’ve got a great program here at Montana State.”

“The experience overall was really cool,” Hessian said. “When I look back on college in 30 years, this is what I’ll remember most of all, I’m sure.”

The MSU teams were – mixed use: Hunter Hessian (team captain), Zac Birdinground, Brandon Molland, William Neville, Austin Robbennolt and Tim Williams; and heavy civil: Gunnar Furstenberg (team co-captain), Mikhail Korobkov (team co-captain), Kyle Broadbent, Brecken Burke and Maxx Whitney.