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U.S. Engineering Provides Innovative Project for National Student Competition

May 24, 2023

U.S. Engineering

Header image: MCAA website

Congratulations to Pittsburg State University, the 2023 Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) Student Chapter Competition winners! U.S. Engineering was thrilled to participate in this year’s competition, providing the project prompt and one of the judges. Each year this program invites students to prepare proposals based on real-world projects, and the winning team walks away with $10,000.

U.S. Engineering Construction Preconstruction Manager Sarabeth Gandara connected us to the event and introduced this year’s project to the participating teams. From 2013 to 2018, Sarabeth competed in the MCAA Student Chapter alongside her classmates at Milwaukee School of Engineering.

Sarabeth Gandara at the MCAA Student Competition. Photo: MCAA

“One of the years that my chapter made it to the Final Four, the project was a wastewater treatment facility. In my curriculum for architectural engineering, we were never exposed to any civil subjects, including wastewater. This competition was a great opportunity to learn about something outside of my classes. At the time, I had no idea that my first job would be at the National Western Center District Energy Facility, drawing on that experience with wastewater.” Sarabeth continued, “Had I not been exposed to those processes through the student competition, the whole project would have been completely foreign to me. I’m grateful that I gained a basic understanding of the intricacies of the process and had learned some of the associated vocabulary, so I could formulate questions that helped me better understand the project.”

Attending the convention as a student left a lasting impression and influenced Sarabeth to join MCAA’s Career Development Committee following graduation. 

“I was blown away by the people that I met at the convention. That experience opened my eyes to the mechanical contracting industry and helped me find my career fit. I wanted to continue to give back to the organization that gave so much to me early in my career,” she said.

The MCAA Student Chapter Competition

Photo: MCAA

The MCAA Student Chapter Competition is held annually. Every fall, the organization reaches out to its student chapters, providing them with a specific project. Participating groups form a fictitious company and create a project plan. In developing their proposals, they incorporate Building Information Modeling (BIM), sustainability goals, mechanical service and maintenance agreements and new technologies.

This year, U.S. Engineering provided the National Western Center District Energy Facility, an innovative district energy system that primarily uses raw sewage to heat and cool seven buildings on the new campus. The students were challenged to come up with an estimate and a plan to install three 1000-ton cooling towers; six 6000-mbh boilers; a sewer heat recovery system; heat exchangers; pumps; piping; and supporting infrastructure. To help them develop their plans, we provided critical information, like drawings, background information and specifications. We also assisted in providing responses to Requests for Information (RFIs).

Photo: MCAA

Proposals were submitted via Procore in December by 22 student groups. The proposals included documents, such as an executive summary, project team resumes, an estimate, a schedule and other items related to their plan for the scope of work. Each packet was evaluated by a panel of judges made up of MCAA contractor members. Those experts were tasked with selecting the final four. Teams were chosen based on the quality and completeness of their workplan, estimates, proposal and schedule.

The top 4 teams were invited to attend the MCAA National Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, to present their plan. Each 10-minute session was treated like a project interview and given to a panel of judges and a room full of contractors. During this time, judges asked the students specific questions related to their concepts. This year, Pittsburg State University took home the prize. (Meet the winning team!) Runners up California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, took home a $5,000 prize, and the other teams in the Final Four—Fairleigh Dickinson University and McMaster University—won $2,500 a piece.

While at the conference, students were able to hear how the project was actually handled. John Marlow, PE, DBIA, Vice President, Project Development at USEC, shared his insight in a “What Really Happened” presentation following the student interviews. When asked whether the student plans resembled U.S. Engineering’s real-life approach, Sarabeth observed, “Although the submittals closely mirrored USEC’s plan, we did see some unique safety plans and policies presented. One team included a strategy for handling an active shooter on a jobsite, and another used heat sensors on field laborers to alert before heat stroke.

Photo: MCAA

This competition brings incredible value to students. John said it offers students experiences that directly relate to responsibilities they’ll have in their careers: “This is a great program that allows students to experience the real world without losing a multi-million-dollar contract,” he said. John continued, “Many of our project pursuits involve proposals. Sometimes, it can solely be a written proposal discussing our team, capabilities, approach, differentiators and more. Or, we may be asked to prepare all of those items along with a price or cost opinion. Pulling a price together is one thing, but having to prepare and present uses an entirely different skillset. What these students go through to prepare is similar to what we experience. However, they are also asked to speak in front of their peers and an audience, which is even more than what we do. What we’ve seen over the years with the finalists has been unbelievable. These students are top of their class,” he said.

U.S. Engineering, along with SHARC Energy and Centrio, hosted the winning Pittsburg State team in Denver on April 21, 2023, to tour the completed facility at the National Western Center. The students learned about the project’s inception, predevelopment, construction and facility operation. They asked questions of the project team that actually executed the project. The tour was an awesome way to wrap up the student competition experience.

On our involvement in this competition, Sarabeth notes, “U.S. Engineering is committed to inspiring the next generation of the workforce, and we hope that our involvement in the MCAA Student Competition encouraged someone, somewhere to join the mechanical contracting industry.”

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