Learning about structural design through a real-world project

Yuxuan Zhu
  • Hometown: Beijing, China

The M.Eng. project is definitely beneficial since it mimics the real world and allows us to communicate with industry professionals and learn from them. This experience is also a huge plus on my resume."

Yuxuan Zhu, Civil '21, M.Eng. '22

Tell us about the semester design project.
We were working on designing a high-rise building, 561 Greenwich Street, in NYC. This project was divided into four phases: pre-schematic structural evaluation, gravity system design, lateral system design, and diaphragm/foundation/embodied carbon considerations. In each phase, we worked in three groups of four to access the problem from three different perspectives and compared our design in terms of cost, carbon emission, and feasibility.

My team worked on timber structure, 40' by 40' bay size composite steel gravity system, dual lateral system, and diaphragm design, respectively, in each phase. We took turns leading each design phase. I was the team leader for the first phase. I also actively contributed my ideas in the other phases because I have taken more design courses than some of my teammates and might be more familiar with certain topics. Overall, our team dynamics work well, where everyone gets the chance to lead and contribute.

What was the biggest structural engineering challenge and how did you overcome it?
The biggest structural engineering challenge for me is the lateral system design. Our group worked on designing a dual lateral system, and none of us had previous experience with it. We looked through the building codes, watched tutorials on how to build SAP models, and asked Professor Reiter and TT advisors about critical assumptions and standard approaches. After multiple trials and errors, we were able to come up with a practical design.

Are there any memorable moments for you?
The most memorable moment for me was when we finished our final presentation, and everything finally came together. After seeing all our efforts presented, the sense of achievement I felt was unforgettable.

Are there any key learnings you would like to share?
I learned a lot about communicating in a professional setting, decomposing a complicated problem into smaller, more doable sections, and always cross-verify my hand calc, 2D models, and 3D models to get a reliable result. 

Why did you choose Cornell's M.Eng. program?
I had a really positive and memorable undergrad experience at Cornell, and I decided to stay here for my M.Eng. Being a Cornell student, I feel supported by the students and professors I met. Everyone I met is very approachable for help and advice in all aspects. Also, the M.Eng. project course is a huge attraction to me. It provides a hands-on opportunity to do a large-scale, real-world project, which is rare in traditional design courses. The resources provided to me are also very helpful. I have reached out to Professor Reiter and Professor Hover for career advice and got connected with several alumni who work in my dream company. They played a significant role in my job-hunting process. I really appreciate their help.

How was the transition from Undergrad to Grad courses?
The transition for me was not very hard since I had taken several grad-level courses when I was an undergrad. The increased number of projects and group assignments was a challenge.

Which classes do you feel have been most impactful on your M.Eng. experience and why?
For me, the project course was the most impactful because I was able to improve my knowledge base and the necessary communication and collaboration skills.

The Time Series Analysis course is also impactful for me. There was a lot of discussion about this course and my course project during my job interviews because structural health monitoring with sensors and data analysis is a heated topic now. Before taking the course, I didn't know how time series data analysis could be applied in structural engineering. But after doing the course project and discussing it with current engineers in this field during interviews, I realized its importance in structural health monitoring and other promising applications. It broadens my perception of structural engineering.

What is the student community like?
I absolutely love the students I met here. They are all very passionate and aspirational. I was encouraged and enlightened by a lot of them and became more certain about my own goal. I am a relatively quiet and introverted person, but I am willing to open myself up in this inclusive environment.

What are your next steps professionally?
I will be working at an engineering consulting firm as a structural engineer, and I will keep learning and preparing for a license. 

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