Montana State University

MSU Engineering Students Excel in Competition

March 30, 2012 -- Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Members of MSU's heavy civil construction team from the Reno estimating competition show off the first place trophy they earned. They are, from left to right: Cole Jensen, Nick Smith, Derek DeJong, Brandon Nowlan, Clayton Morrell and Will Morgan. MSU photo by Sepp Jannotta.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN - For a fifth time in 10 years MSU's College of Engineering is home to the first-place trophy for its students hands-on ability to estimate a multi-million dollar project and produce a real-world bid in the heavy civil engineering category of the Associated Schools of Construction, held in Reno in February.

Those five wins in the past decade for MSU's civil engineering students are the most for any school in regions 6 and 7 (the Rockies and the Pacific Coast). MSU also had a third-place finish and an honorable mention with its teams in the commercial and marine-construction categories, respectively.

"It's really great to see how well they've done," said Dean Peterson, adjunct professor in the Department of Civil Engineering. "What many people may not appreciate about these competitions is the amount of work that goes into it if you want to do well."

That work begins in the classroom, particularly in an early-morning, one-credit civil engineering class on preparing a project bid.

The class, ECIV-492, is known as "Reno prep" and was instituted by Peterson in an effort to get the most educational bang out of the Reno estimating competition, where industry professionals judge students' estimates on projects that companies sponsoring the event have already built.

The entire enterprise of preparing a bid under the pressure of the competition clock - teams of six have a little more than 16 hours to pull together and present a feasible and professional project plan - is a great taste of the real world, Peterson said.

In addition to attending that once-a-week 7 a.m. class during fall semester, Reno-bound competitors also commit to four weekend workshops in which they work out project bids in competition format with judging from College of Engineering alumni who now work in the construction industry.

"The workshops are a real strength for us because students are hearing from, and networking with a lot of our alumni who have competed in Reno and are now out in private industry," Peterson said. "What the alumni bring to this is a tremendous contribution - it's their way of paying something back to Montana State and paying it forward to these students. It's a great legacy and we really appreciate it."

Ryan Cogley, who graduated MSU with a bachelor's in construction engineering technology in 2007, said keeping connected to the College of Engineering also benefits companies who are looking to attract the best young talent.

Cogley said the evidence of that is written in the fact that McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., for whom he works as a project manager, paid for him to fly to Bozeman from Arizona, twice - once for the estimating workshop and another time for MSU's career fair.

Those same companies are especially drawn to job candidates who have participated in the Reno competition, Cogley added.

"If you can go figure out a bid proposal in 16 hours, you can figure out most other jobs that might come across your desk," Cogley said. "There's no question that participating in the Reno competition offers students a really good example of what is waiting for them when they graduate and go into the workforce. Putting together (a bid) is something that comes up a couple of times a week when you're at a company like McCarthy."

Zac Morris, a graduate student in the Department of Civil Engineering and a coach in the Reno competition effort, said that is the point.

"That's why these teams will sacrifice a weekend for one of the workshops and stay up basically all night to try and get it right," Morris said.

Morris said all the preparation was clearly paying off with results in Reno.

"Just look at the marine construction team's effort," Morris said. "Montana is a long way from the ocean, yet this group put together by far their best year in the competition and picked up an honorable mention."

In Reno, MSU's marine team was asked to rebuild a portion of the Army National Guard Pier 43 at Tacoma, Wash., with an 80-year-old wooden timber portion of the pier to be demolished and replaced, all while maintaining access to the working portion of the pier.

Kiewit Bridge and Marine, the company that rebuilt Pier 43, gave the team kudos as being MSU's strongest marine squad to date, Morris said. They produced a bid of $20 million for the work, very competitive in comparison to Kiewit's actual bid of $18 million. Kirstyn Young captained the team that also featured Andrew Barthel, Amanda Gossack, Dennis Laubach, Jake Michels and Alex Phillips.

MSU's commercial team was given a project to bid on the new White Tank Library and Nature Center outside of Phoenix, Ariz., a 29,000-square foot, single-story, LEED-accredited, tilt-up-concrete wall structure. They were told they would have a project duration of 13 months. Mortenson Construction of Minneapolis, Minn., judged the category.

Mortenson's judges gave the MSU team credit for one of the most outstanding analyses of the project, good for a third-place finish out of 16 teams. Kyle Boyd captained the team that also featured Mike Berve, Mike Lutes, Adam Shields, Drennan Waller and Kevin Yoakum.

For the heavy civil team, the route to victory in that category took them conceptually to Ketchikan, Alaska, where they were tasked with bidding a project to build a road through varied, sometimes-steep terrain crossed by several salmon-producing streams. The road in question is set to connect to the so-called "bridge to nowhere" that, once built, will allow road access between Ketchikan's airport and the island-bound, coastal town.

"Obviously, there were a lot of logistical concerns, with the biggest being access to the project, which was going in through a pretty intense temperate rain forest," said team captain Brandon Nowlan, who is a senior in the construction engineering technology major.

MSU's price of $18 million for this work was the closest responsive bid to the $17 million price brought in Kiewit Northwest Infrastructure, which built the project. When considered with MSU's top-shelf project presentation booklet, the Kiewit judges awarded the Bobcats first place out of 12 teams competing in the category.

Nowlan, who has been to Reno four years running, said the team fed off of a chemistry that had been honed during the four estimating workshops. Nowlan's teammates were Derek DeJong, Cole Jensen, Will Morgan, Clayton Morrell and Nick Smith.

"This year we were pretty confident," Nowlan said. "We'd done a lot of prep work and were feeling good. You never know because it's pretty subjectively judged. Still, it was always our goal this year to win."

MSU's success in the heavy civil category in Reno prompted a recognition luncheon on Friday, during which Dave Woods, executive director of the Beavers, a national organization of heavy civil contractors, presented the MSU's construction engineering program with a check for $76,500. Peterson said $12,500 of that is scholarship money for the team, with the remaining $64,000 to be added to the Beavers MSU Scholarship Endowment.

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371 or