Lab allows students to learn structural engineering by getting hands dirty

The Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s “hands on, minds on” motto means a head-start for students at post-college careers at the Ray and Madelyn Curry Education Wing and the Thomas M. Murray Structural Engineering Laboratory. There, engineering students construct large-scale metal structures and concrete girders, and then tear them apart, crushing them under massive actuators or inside vacuum chambers.

   

Elias Rivera, a master’s student from Orlando, Fla., is studying structural engineering in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Here, he is working on a study involving putting stress on construction materials. Helping Rivera, in the background, is Ebrahim Abbas, also a master’s student. Elias Rivera, a master’s student from Orlando, Fla., is studying structural engineering in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Here, he is working on a study involving putting stress on construction materials. Helping Rivera, in the background, is Ebrahim Abbas, also a master’s student.

It is a place to build, destroy and build again, all in the name of education.

All of this happens on a week-in, week-out basis at the massive warehouse-like lab that originally opened in 1990, under the direction of Thomas M. Murray, a now-retired professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“Students get to experience the practical side of structural design, because they typically have to design and construct their own specimens,” said Carin Roberts-Wollmann, the lab’s director and a professor of civil engineering. “They build formwork, tie reinforcing steel, and cast concrete. They learn a tremendous amount about hydraulics, instrumentation, and data acquisition. There is no substitution for the experience of watching the failure mechanisms in their specimens as they destroy what they have created.”

The lab has undergone a number of expansions, including the addition of offices and meeting rooms in the Ray and Madelyn Curry Education Wing, funded in-part and named for a 1954 engineering alumnus. The Murray section is a huge warehouse-like room dwarfed by two 5-ton cranes. It is roughly 60 feet wide by 200 feet long and nearly 30 feet high. Visits to the lab can mean seeing concrete pre-stressed highway bridge all girders being load-tested for strength or metal roofing structures erected inside a vacuum chamber going through the paces of a load test.

   

Students and faculty within the Virginia Tech Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering conduct a test of a lightweight concrete girders. This research is investigating the shear strength of lightweight concrete girders.  At far right is Professor Carin Roberts-Wollmann. Students and faculty within the Virginia Tech Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering conduct a test of a lightweight concrete girders. This research is investigating the shear strength of lightweight concrete girders. At far right is Professor Carin Roberts-Wollmann.

Many projects are corporate sponsored to ensure products meet federal regulations, and are overseen by Roberts-Wollmann; Cris Moen, also an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering; several other faculty members; and all of their two-dozen-plus team of doctoral, master’s and undergraduate students.

The students say they love the work, as physically taxing as it is mentally challenging.

“Structural engineering is a very physical discipline, and we have a great facility to do research in,” said William Collins, a second-year doctoral student in structural engineering from Chesterfield, Va. “At other schools these opportunities don’t exist, and most students spend most of their time stuck in an office in front of a computer. I can learn a lot more by actually getting my hands dirty and solving real problems.”

The lab’s ability to handle a diversity of structural engineering tests makes it stand out against larger such facilities across the nation. Murray, still a regular visitor to the lab with an office there, said employers have taken notice. “I have had happy employers ask ‘What have you done directly with these guys because they have a different outlook on how to put things together.’ And that comes from working in the lab in my opinion,” he said.

   

Kedar Ram Halbe is a doctoral student from Mumbai, India, studying structural engineering in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Kedar Ram Halbe is a doctoral student from Mumbai, India, studying structural engineering in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“As structural engineers we are expected to analyze, design, and detail structures when working in the industry,” said Kedar Halbe, a doctoral student in structural engineering originally from Mumbai, India. “Most of the experimental work that we carry out in the lab requires us to come up with analysis and design of test specimens as per industry standards.”

Brett Farmer, supervisor for the lab since its opening in 1990, chalks up the facility’s not just to its size, but the people who oversee it. “We know there are other facilities that are larger, but I think the faculty plays a large part in the students wanting to be here,” Farmer said. “I’ve worked here this long and I have never woken up one morning and dreaded coming to work.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Steven Mackay at 540-231-4787.

Where is the lab?

    The Ray and Madelyn Curry Education Wing and Thomas M. Murray Structural Engineering Laboratory, located off Plantation Road, was dedicated in October 2009.

The Virginia Tech Ray and Madelyn Curry Education Wing and Thomas M. Murray Structural Engineering Laboratory is not on the main campus, but on Plantation Road. It's past the horse and cattle farms and after the turn. 

It’s alongside a road of several labs, including a facility a facility for the Virginia Tech Unmanned Systems Laboratory  and the Kroehling Advanced  Materials Foundry , both part of the College of Engineering.

Who is Raymond Curry?

    Raymond Curry

Raymond Curry Jr. is a member of the College of Engineering Class of 1954 who worked for his father’s company, MOSES‐ECCO, a Washington, D.C.-based high rise concrete construction company, before starting two companies on his own, SMC Concrete Construction Inc. and Curry Development Inc. Among his hallmark projects: the Watergate Complex.

He and wife established the Raymond and Madelyn Curry Graduate Fellowship, among other philanthropic endeavors. He will be inducted into the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s Academy of Engineering Excellence in March 2012.

Who is Thomas Murray?

    Thomas M. Murray

A longtime faculty member of Virginia Tech, Thomas M. Murray served as the inaugural Montague-Betts Professor of Structural Steel Design with the Virginia Tech Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering until his retirement in 2008.

He founded the Virginia Tech Structures and Materials Laboratory, where he and his graduate students developed alternate methods for connecting beams and columns in buildings in regions that experience high seismic activity levels. He was named a professor emeritus in 2008.

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