Concrete Canoes Float Again

UPDATE: The Concrete Canoe Team at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) won first place at the 2022 ASCE Intermountain Southwest Student Symposium this past week. The event took place April 13-16 in Las Vegas, Nevada, where a canoe race on Lake Mead was the ultimate test for success.
 
“After five years we have earned ourselves an entry to the 2022 National Concrete Canoe Competition,” says Alex Tang, a fourth year engineering student at UNR who project managed the team’s victory with fellow engineering student Arturo Medina. “We will be competing against 21 schools from different ASCE regions and several international schools, including some from India and China.”
 
The final takes place in Ruston, Louisiana, June 3-5, at Louisiana Tech University. The canoe race will take place on Hoogland Lake.

It starts with Archimedes’ principle, simply stated, that an object will float if it is less dense than water. From there the annual Concrete Canoe Competition, hosted by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), gets a whole lot more technical, making it an engaging hands-on lesson for students in the challenges and opportunities of real-world engineering.

Students at University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) have built a strong concrete canoe culture over the years, with a string of 11 straight trips to the national competitions between 2006 and 2016, including championships in 2008 and 2014. After a two-year pause due to the pandemic, the 2021-2022 team is back at work and hoping for a return to the finals, June 3-5 at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston.

Alex Tang, fourth year civil engineering student at UNR, leads this year’s team with Arturo Medina as partnering project managers. Tang joined the team as a freshman and returns after the pandemic pause with a team of some 20 engineering students equally split between veterans and newcomers. The veterans are charged with restarting the program after the pandemic gap years.

It hasn’t been easy. The same supply line issues and material shortages that plague precasters have impacted the team. It’s a real-world scenario.

“I’m getting a lot of project management, but I’m also learning a lot about facing challenges and how to address them quickly while maintaining the schedule,” Tang says. “It’s a lot of coordinating and keeping all the moving parts of your machine moving together.”

The team draws on a mix of in-kind donations and funding from the community, like a recent $5,000 donation from Jensen Precast, a longtime supporter of the university. Another local company donated scraps of high-density urethane foam, which the team glued together to make a three-piece mold. The mold went to a company specializing in computer numerical control (CNC) machining that cut the precision form for the canoe.

“Our hull design team worked on a design that Arturo and I reviewed and approved,” Tang says. “Then they created a SolidWorks 3D CAD file that the CNC shop could use to cut the mold. We’ll assemble the form, place reinforcement, and then when the mix design team is ready we’ll go ahead and cast the concrete. The goal is always a light and strong mix, but it’s not easy because the ASCE Concrete Canoe Competition Committee likes to change up the rules to keep us on our toes.”

The origins of the competition date back to the 1960s, when a few ASCE Student Chapters began holding intramural concrete canoe races. Over the years the races became part of the organization’s culture. The first formal competition was held in 1988. Today the elite events, which combine engineering excellence, hydrodynamic design, and racing technique is known as the America’s Cup of Civil Engineering. Like any proper water-faring enthusiast, chapters even give their canoes well-considered names.

This year’s UNR team plans to call its canoe Azure. “It’s been a tradition to create a theme that revolves around what it means to be a Nevadan, to show how prideful we are about our state when we go to these competitions,” Tang says. This year it’s the mountain bluebird, the state bird of Nevada.

Regional competition is April 13-16 in Las Vegas, Nevada, with the winning team qualifying for the nationals. The actual racing events are just one part of the competition. Canoes are also judged on craftsmanship as well as the team’s written and technical reports. New this year is micro-project to show how the team can add value to the canoe. The UNR team’s micro-project is a promotional website doubling as a body of knowledge for future UNR engineering students.

The Concrete Canoe Competition is a right of passage for many engineering students, including Kelly Keselica, PE, who was a student team member at UNR in 2006 and now advises current teams as a lecturer and teacher for the school’s College of Engineering.

“The project itself, as a concrete canoe, isn’t the most applicable, but it’s all of the skills that go into creating the project and making it happen,” Keselica says. “It’s understanding written and verbal skills, and having to do those in a technical sense. And, of course, the teamwork. Communicating with team members to make sure that things actually happen on time.”

Support like the donation from Jensen Precast plays a key role in helping the team maintain its status as a leader in the competition over the years.

“Our donors from the community mean everything,” Keselica says. “It’s so helpful for the students. We have donors that continually contribute to this team, and $5,000 is a massive amount to them. Things are expensive. They just spent $6,000 getting Styrofoam CNC’d for their form. It’s very expensive to do these things and do them in a quality way. If you have to hand make that mold out of Styrofoam, it’s never quite perfect. It’s never quite square and even, and doesn’t look as nice.

“This current project, just to build, it’s $10,000 to $15,000. Then we have travel costs, registration for conferences, and getting 20 people down to Las Vegas. If they qualify, getting 20 people to the nationals. So it’s definitely not cheap, and the fact that local companies care so much and are so generous, well, there’s no other way the team could do it.”

Diarra Morgan, an intern in the Jensen Precast Marketing Department, would take it even further. A material sciences student in UNR Engineering, Morgan joined the team as a freshman in 2017 when he wondered how in the world you make concrete float. “It didn’t make sense for me,” he says. But he learned quickly and ended up with the experience of a lifetime.

“I made a lot of good friends out of it,” Morgan says. “These are people I’m going to call friends for a really long time, and I wouldn’t have met them if it weren’t for me joining this. They are some of the smartest people I know. Engineering is hard, so you need that support just to help you get through it.”

And along with all the learning, he points to another strong motivator: “It’s a lot of fun.”

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