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Students, Prepare to Launch your Concrete Canoes! (Part 1)

Students, Prepare To Launch Your Concrete Canoes! (Part 1)

Division I athlete-engineers: Last year's Armour College of Engineering team unveiled the "Illinois Tech" name.

Division I athlete-engineers: Last year's Armour College of Engineering team unveiled the "Illinois Tech" name.

Dr. Kesler: The father of concrete canoeing.

Dr. Kesler: The father of concrete canoeing.

Chances are good that if you attended engineering school any time in the last 40 years, then you at least have heard of the National Concrete Canoe Competition. Now a fun, global phenomenon sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the event actually can trace its roots to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1970, where Prof. Clyde Kesler first asked students to craft a canoe from concrete to showcase the construction material's capabilities. From there, the idea spread until a national race was launched in 1988. Today, 18 nations host competitions. In this new series, BW will follow one team's journey from lab to lagoon.

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by MATTHEW TROEMNER, student, Illinois Tech | First in a series | April 6, 2016

Welcome to the strangest college sport… I mean class project… um, student competition... that you may never have heard of. Officially, it is the ASCE National Concrete Canoe Competition. For us engineering students, though, it is practically a way of life. 

Now in our second to last week of construction, we just broke our canoe out of its mold  a bit more literally than we would have liked  but, I am getting ahead of myself, for our construction process here started nearly five months ago. 

Like in any good concrete design, we began with testing to determine the best mix to use.

Before breaking the mold, our team first had to make one.

Before breaking the mold, our team first had to make one.

Where we differ from the industry, is our complete and utter disregard for the norm. Sure, we had a couple of “standard” mixes to use, just in case our trials went completely haywire; but aside from that, we took no limitations. One of our teammates suggested sawdust to make it more cohesive, one wanted fiberglass feathers for strength, one wanted to basically make the whole mix out of tiny glass bubbles — so, we tried them all.

The sawdust worked well but didn’t harden properly. The fiberglass was so difficult to integrate (that) it broke our mixer, and the glass bubble trial was lighter than any concrete you could dream of… but it could also be smashed with a fist. So, we played it safe, made a mix similar to last year's and then added our own flair to it. 

With the design portion done, it was time for casting. All of the materials were gathered, the team was assembled, and music-to-work-by was pumped through the shop. Layer 1 of the canoe: mixed, applied, smoothed. Layer 2: mixed, applied… “Hey Aaron, I need another bucket of mix! Ok, I'll make some... Wait, I don’t have any more 3M [glass bubbles]... What do you mean you don’t have anymore? All of the boxes are empty!”  [EXPLETIVES DELETED]

So, what was once a promising, productive Saturday night, quickly turned into our team calling everyone we knew to try to find another material. Using our expertise, we made a few substitutes and just had to wing it for the rest of the casting.

Fast-forward through 15 days of hardening... and we arrived at last week  time to remove the canoe from its mold. The moment of truth had arrived. But after countless hours creating a form that we could finally use, year after year, it was stuck in the mold! So, out came the chisels and a chainsaw to, reluctantly, destroy the mold. Fortunately, it was all downhill from there; a bit of sanding, sealant, and the finishing touches. 

Our canoe is now nearly done, but the fun has yet to begin. For we still have to see if it floats!

NEXT UP: Another moment of truth...

A student intern with the American Institute of Steel Construction, the author is president of Illinois Tech's ASCE chapter. Now in his fourth year, he is pursuing a co-terminal degree with a B.S. in Architectural Engineering and an M.E. in Structural Engineering. Troemner will graduate in 2017. For more, go to www.matthewtroemner.com.

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