Wednesday, July 27, 2022

By News and Internal Communications

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – Sacrificing weekends and holiday breaks paid off for UTRGV’s Civil Engineering GeoWall Team, which brought home a national win this spring from the American Society of Civil Engineers Geo-Institute GeoChallenge competition.

The competition was held in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the Geo-Congress 2022, which is the largest technical conference in geotechnical engineering featuring activities for national and international researchers, professionals, and students.

This was the second time the UTRGV team competed; in 2020 in Indianapolis the team finished in second place, shy 0.1 points out of 300 from the trophy.

“We are the first Texas team to win this trophy in the almost 20-year history of the competition,” said Dr. Thang Pham, assistant professor of civil engineering and team advisor. “We are so proud of our UTRGV civil engineering students, and we take it as a collective win for everyone.”

Pham said the team worked very hard, practicing five months, 20 hours per week while maintaining a heavy schoolwork schedule as civil engineering graduate and senior students.

“This is the most competitive student competition in our area of geotechnical engineering,” Pham said. “We know other competing teams are from well-established universities, with civil engineering programs running hundreds of years, while the UTRGV program was just established about 12 years ago. However, the students were strongly inspired to go for the championship. And we made it this year!”

According to the Geo-Institute website, the GeoWall competition consists of designing and building a model mechanically stabilized Earth (MSE) retaining wall, using paper reinforcement taped to a posterboard wall facing. The design should strive to need the least amount of reinforcement to support the retained soil and design loads.

The challenge was for the student teams to design a reinforced bridge abutment model with 3D vertical and lateral loads, Pham said.

The top 12 universities with the highest scores in design were invited to participate in the second round for construction performance.

UTRGV received the highest total scores of the two rounds and walked away with the national title.

 The UTRGV national-winning team at the GeoWall competition in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the Geo-Congress 2022. (Courtesy Photo)
The UTRGV national-winning team at the GeoWall competition in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the Geo-Congress 2022. (Courtesy Photo)


Ashley Alanis, GeoWall team captain from Weslaco, said the team was optimistic going into this year’s contest as they faced off against teams from University of California Los Angeles, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Texas A&M, and others.

“The UTRGV GeoWall team was overlooked and underestimated by the other competing universities,” Alanis said. “But once we won, they congratulated us and were interested in our design. People from other universities asked us if we could share our design report with them.”

Competing team members included: 

  • Ashley Alanisfrom Weslaco, senior, team captain
  • Miguel A. Garcia from Edinburg, master’s student, team co-captain and chief technical officer
  • Jesse Bazanfrom Mission, senior, team member
  • Patricia Guerrero from Mission, junior, team member
  • Cesar Coronado from Mission, senior, alternates
  • Liam Duranfrom Edinburg, senior, alternates

Garcia, the team chief technical officer said, the team practiced consistently on a design with a self-built model box for many months with successful outcomes and stable performance, but just one week before they left for the competition, the model box broke, and the model collapsed forcing the team to change the design.

“The whole team was so stressed and somewhat hopeless, but as fast as we could we fixed the design and built a new box, both with satisfying performance just two days before we flew to the competition,” said Garcia. “At the competition, our final design, even though used the least material amongst all the teams, not only successfully carried the specified loads, but the weight of two team members.”

On behalf of the team, Alanis thanked Dr. Thuy Vu, civil engineering department associate chair and Pham for their support.

Garcia called Vu the “mother of the team.”

“She gathered us together and motivated us to compete in something we all loved. Dr. Vu helped with many hours on the design report and was there to guide us in the team aspect of the competition. She helped with team morale, fundraising, and support when we needed it,” Garcia said.

Alanis said Pham, an expert who has conducted well-known research for the U.S. Federal Highway Administration on the topic of reinforced soil, was an important asset to the team.

“Getting second place in 2020 left Dr. Pham with very high expectations for this year’s competing team. He ensured us many times that we had what it took, as long as we believed in ourselves and concentrated,” she said.

Pham said the UTRGV students have raw talent, a strong work ethic, and the ambition to help them win competitions like this one. These team members have proven they are always up for a challenge, he said.

“UTRGV students and our civil engineering program are striving for excellence,” Pham said. “The students are provided with well-rounded knowledge, and winning nationals is within reach.”


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.