March 30, 2016
Bark, wood, canvas, aluminum, plastic, and fiberglass. All of these materials are commonly used to make canoes. Concrete doesn’t quite seem to fit in the same category, but it is exactly what WKU engineering students have used year after year to build their canoes and enter the National Concrete Canoe Competition. Hosted by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), this competition challenges engineers to work together as a team and, amazingly, make concrete float above water. On Wednesday, March 30 WKU’s Concrete Canoe team headed off to Cincinnati to compete in the regional competition.
A great deal of work went into preparing for this highly competitive event. One of the team captains, Tyler Baker, estimates that the team put nearly 500 hours into the design and production of their canoe. This year, the team decided to try several new things that had not been done in any previous years of competition for WKU. One innovation was the use of fly ash in their canoe design. Fly ash comes from burning coal, and from this product concrete can be made. By using fly ash for most of the canoe, the team was able to reduce CO2 emissions by about 70%. In fact, the canoe is one of the most environmentally friendly canoes that Western has produced, and the team is very excited to present this information at regionals.
This year’s canoe is also one of the lighter canoes that the team has made. By using a special aggregate, they were able to make their canoe out of concrete about three times lighter than the average concrete. The whole boat weighs a total of 180 pounds, and it has additional flotation material at either end to ensure that the canoe stays afloat. Designing and building the canoe has taken the team all year, and they are excited to finally put their hard work to the test. From the ten-hour process of pouring the canoe to finishing touches put on during the week before the competition, all team members have been through a great deal and are ready to show off their finished product.
At regionals, the concrete canoe will be judged on several components. One of these is aesthetics—how the canoe looks. Each year the team picks a theme for their canoe, and this year it is BBQ. Cleverly naming the canoe “Bar-B-Qrete,” the words on the side of the canoe are not merely paint. Students had to actually carve the letters into the body of the canoe and pour in colored concrete to achieve the desired effect. The letters were covered to dry and, when the sticker was peeled off, some areas of the canoe were left a bit rougher than intended. This is one aspect of the canoe that has left the team a bit nervous for regionals, but overall they are confident in the boat’s theme and design.
The team will also be judged on the academic portion of the project. The paper they have written on the project will be judged, as well as a five minute oral presentation. During the presentation, the team will push sustainability and cost—two aspects of the canoe of which they are most proud. Not only is their canoe environmentally friendly, but they were able to greatly decrease the budget needed for this year’s project. Last year the budget cost approximately $6,000, but this year they only used $2000 to build the canoe.
Finally, the canoe will truly be put to the test. It will be judged on how it holds up in water. In the flo tation test, the canoe will be entirely submerged in water and, in order to pass, it must float back up to the top. The team will also use the canoe in five races, four of which are sprints and one an endurance race.
Nervous but eager to test out their concrete canoe, the team is excited to compete at regionals! Last year, Western won first place at the regional competition and advanced to nationals, so the team is hoping to do a repeat of last year’s success. All team members are happy with their finished product and can’t wait to compete. Tyler Baker shared that his favorite part of the process has been getting the opportunity to work on a real, hands-on engineering project. He, along with the rest of the team, has learned a great deal about meeting deadlines, scheduling, working with others, and dealing with problems as they come. After all, they have managed to build a floatable, usable canoe from concrete, achieving what may seem impossible to most.