Aspiring Engineers Vie in Canoe Competition

Justin Dennis, The Tribune-Democrat

posted June 20, 2014


JOHNSTOWN — It took Pitt-Johnstown engineering students eight months and around 3,000 man-hours to build “Essayons,” a canoe that will carry them across the Quemahoning on Saturday.

Quixotically, the boat was made with concrete.

Nearly two dozen teams of student engineers from the U.S., Canada and China will try to float their concrete boats on Saturday, hoping to take the national award later that evening at the Pitt-Johnstown campus. This is the seventh time Pitt-Johnstown has made it to the National Concrete Canoe Competition. Last year, the team placed ninth among roughly 300 schools around the world.

The seemingly nonsensical exercise of building a stone boat actually has a strong practical application, said Randy Over, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which organizes the annual contest.

“We think it’s exactly parallel to what they’ll see in the real world when they graduate,” he said.

Over said the student teams’ work will be judged equally in four categories: Engineering design and construction principles; a technical design report “showing their work” like a problem on a math test; a formal business presentation, showcasing their design and product as they would for a potential client; and finally, the actual performance of the canoe.

“Project management skills, team building, leadership skills, presentation skills ... they get that kind of experience before they graduate,” Over said.

It’s meant to engage them.

“The future of our profession is the students.”

The ASCE also organizes a similar event  – making bridges with steel, a common material that civil engineers will make regular use of. Concrete is another. But the participants’ canoes aren’t 100 percent concrete; hollow, glass microspheres are mixed in, embedding air pockets that keep the boats above water.

Brian Houston, associate professor of civil engineering and the contest’s faculty adviser, said he’s seen floatable canoes range in weight from 100 to 500 pounds. This year, he estimated the lightest entry is about 120 pounds and the heaviest weighs in around 350 pounds. Each year, the National Concrete Canoe Committee changes the design rules for the canoes to keep it interesting, he said. But the challenge course will put them all through their paces.

“Some years, they design the shape of the boat and there’s a balance there,” he said. “Some shapes go straight very well but can’t turn. Some turn very well but can’t go straight.”

Paddling teams will tackle sprint races – down and back as fast as possible – and endurance races that follow a wide loop between buoy markers.

“(Building teams) have to find a happy medium between going straight and fast and being able to turn quickly,” Houston said. “If you have a really heavy canoe, the long loop just kills you.”

On Thursday, teams were administering the “swamp test”  – flooding the canoe in a tank to be sure it won’t sink. Judges critiqued the aesthetics of each design, giving attention to the required geometry in this year’s blueprint. A fair amount of personality goes into the design as well, Houston said.

“Essayons,” the Pitt-Johnstown team’s canoe, is named after the French motto of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It means, “Let us try.”

“It’s almost impossible to relay to people what these canoes look like because they are artistic visions of themes that the students design themselves and implement,” Houston said.

“They’re pieces of art that are functional. They’re not just canoes.”

Today, the builders will be giving their business presentations. The races get underway at 8 a.m. Saturday at the Quemahoning Family Recreation?Area.

Weather permitting, the contest will end at 1 p.m., with awards to follow from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Wellness Center on the Pitt-Johnstown campus.

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