Engineering skills put to test by building concrete canoes

Half of this year’s Civil Engineering senior class is taking on a daunting task: building a canoe made entirely of lightweight concrete.

This Concrete Canoe project is part of a nationwide competition sponsored by the American Society for Civil Engineers. PNW’s senior class canoe will be presented and judged at regional competitions next month. 

The annual project, once managed by volunteer members of the ASCE student chapter, has become part of the senior curriculum.

“The canoe is very work intensive, which is why it is now a senior design project, and not just a fun event for the ASCE student chapter,” said Alec Schaar, senior Civil Engineering major and president of the ASCE student chapter. He is one of six students involved in designing and building the canoe.

The project challenges students’ design and building skills, and sometimes rowing skills. The fall semester is spent designing the canoe, which is built in the spring.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that concrete isn’t a finished mixed product,” said Schaar. 

A normal concrete mix is made up of cement, sand, gravel, water and air. To build a concrete canoe that can float, styrofoam is added to the mixture. 

Contest rules prohibit using the same concrete mixture each year at competition, and seniors are required to improve their mixture according to ASCE regulations.

It takes time to test concrete mixtures. Concrete has to set for 28 days to reach its maximum strength. Trials for the perfect concrete mix are done in test tubes, cylinders, and beams, and the best mix is then used to construct the canoe. 

To keep everyone honest, information about concrete mixes and structure used in every school’s canoe are kept on a Google Drive that is shared with the ASCE, so that no information is lost or tampered with. This also allows judges to keep track of previous concrete mixtures and see how the current seniors have improved.

During the April competition, entries are judged on engineering, hydrodynamic design and racing technique. That’s why the competition is known as “the America’s Cup of Civil Engineering.”  The ultimate test for the canoe’s structural engineering comes when the craft is maneuvered in open water, where seniors must row together in their canoe, proving its structural capabilities. 

Last year’s competition was cancelled due to COVID-19, and PNW seniors involved in the project have decided not to attend this year’ in-person competition. 

Even though they will not be rowing their canoe, the seniors’ craft will still be judged by the ASCE.