Tuesday, March 10, 2020

By Maria Elena Hernandez

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – When the UTRGV civil engineering GeoWall Team arrived in Minneapolis for a national competition, others at the event weren’t sure who they were.

“A lot of people were asking, ‘What’s UTRGV? What's Rio Grande Valley? Where’s that?’” said Jose Garcia, a UTRGV senior from Pharr and captain of the GeoWall Team.

All that was about to change, though.

In its first year competing, the UTRGV GeoWall Team placed second nationally, scoring 295.5 points out of a possible 300 – just 0.1 point behind the first-place team.

“From that day on, they will never forget our name or our location,” Garcia said.

The UTRGV Team was one of 20 selected for the National GeoWall competition. To qualify, teams submitted a design report for a mechanically stabilized earth wall.

Each team designed a retaining wall that would hold sand or soil in a box, when the box’s front panel and parts of the two side panels were removed. The retaining wall was created from poster board and packaging tape. Teams used 60-pound kraft paper for reinforcing elements. 

During the competition, the sandboxes were filled. Then the front, and parts of the side panels, were removed to test the retaining wall’s ability to hold the sand in place. To test the wall further, a container filled with 50 pounds of sand was placed on top of the sandbox near the retaining wall.

Not only did the UTRGV team's retaining wall hold the 50 pounds, but it also held the weight of some of the team members and the team's faculty advisor, Dr. Thang Pham, assistant professor of civil engineering at UTRGV.

Pham said retaining walls or abutments can be seen on bridges, where they act like an anchor to the ground.

National GeoWall Competition team
The UTRGV College of Engineering and Computer Science hosted a luncheon recently to congratulate civil engineering students who were on the university’s National GeoWall Competition team. The team in its first year competing placed second in the nation, scoring 295.5 points out of a possible 300 – just 0.1 point behind the first-place team. The UTRGV team was one of 20 selected; to qualify, teams submitted a design report for a mechanically stabilized earth wall. (UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy)


Pham and associate professor Dr. Thuy Vu helped the students prepare for the competition.

At a recent lunch celebrating the GeoWall Team’s success, both professors mentioned the long days and nights and the dedication of the students who worked on the project.

The team captain would send texts to others as early as 4:30 a.m., Vu said.

In addition to team captain Jose Garcia, the team consisted of:

  • Yolanda De La Torre, senior from Brownsville.
  • Miguel Garcia, senior from Edcouch.
  • Deborah Jimenez, senior from Mission.
  • Everardo Mendez, senior from Mission.
  • Cassandra Salas, senior from Brownsville.

Jose Garcia said the other GeoWall teams had been competing for years – and some teams included graduate and Ph.D. students. The UTRGV team consisted solely of undergraduates who had about two months to prepare.

“We were nervous, but we have faith,” he said. “Our professors told us, ‘Keep practicing, keep doing what you've been doing, and everything should be all right.’ And it turns out, we did all right. We got second place,” Garcia said.

Dr. Ala Qubbaj, dean of the UTRGV College of Engineering and Computer Science, said the win was exciting. The civil engineering department is the youngest specialization in the UTRGV College of Engineering and Computer Science, he said, and a second-place win in the national competition is a success for the whole community.

“They make us proud, and they really work hard,” he said of the GeoWall Team.

More information about the UTRGV civil engineering department is available at https://www.utrgv.edu/cive/index.htm.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.