You’ve got one crowd suspended over another crowd and everybody’s jumping. We want to learn more about how the structure will respond to those jumping forces.

Kelly Salyards

Tucked deep in the basement laboratories of the Breakiron Engineering Building is an apparatus that loosely resembles an amusement park ride. "Twelve people can stand on it comfortably. Nine can be seated," says Professor Kelly Salyards, civil & environmental engineering. "Then we make it vibrate – it's like creating a small earthquake. We know what force we're putting in. We just need to see how the structure responds."

Salyards uses this laboratory structure to study dynamic loads, or more specifically, how human bodies and structures interact. "Imagine a cantilevered platform in a sports arena," she says. "You've got one crowd suspended over another crowd and everybody's jumping. We want to learn more about how the structure will respond to those jumping forces."

Ultimately, Salyards and her students want to improve on existing methods for modeling this scenario during design. They gather data from real stadiums during actual events, but the lab's testing facility is an excellent way to collect data too. Salyards explains that she and her team have volunteers sit, stand and jump, sometimes with feet leaving the ground and sometimes not. In many cases, she says, we know a lot about the dynamic characteristics of a given structure, but we need to study the human body and how its movements affect both the load and the structural response.

An architectural engineer by training, Salyards connects her students to top structural engineering firms that have provided senior design projects including a 12-story office building and a central utility plant for a large hospital campus. She says there's nothing like seeing her students get input from practicing engineers to expand their experience beyond what they learn in the classroom. Knowing that someday they'll be able to visit the building they worked on as an undergraduate makes it all the more meaningful to Salyards, and to her students.

Posted Sept. 22, 2014

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