Imagine if concrete could float on water. Well, what if I told you it could?
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) student chapter at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering is building canoes that defy expectations — with a little assist from a classic cartoon character.
The team recently participated in the 2023 ASCE Pacific Southwest Student Symposium (PSWS) at California State University, Northridge, where each team’s canoe was made entirely of concrete. The concrete canoe racing circuit has been called the “America’s Cup of Civil Engineering.”
The team must also give their canoe a unique team theme. This year, their theme was “Scooby Canoe.”
“The theme is based on Scooby Doo, so it’s supposed to look like the mystery machine from the show,” said Michelle Ramos, a USC Viterbi senior studying civil engineering and the team’s project manager. “Scooby Canoe is essentially just a playoff of ‘SC’ for Southern California. This is how we create our team name every year. There is a lot that goes into this competition, and it takes a lot of teamwork.”
You may be wondering how, or even why, the canoe is made of concrete? Those questions are key components of the entire engineering competition as teams work to make the seemingly unfloatable, float.
“It’s essentially about buoyancy,” Ramos explained. “The canoe is over a flatter surface area, so the volume of water it displaces is greater than the amount of volume it takes up, which is how it floats.”
The annual concrete canoe competition provides engineering students, and anyone else interested, with the opportunity to problem solve using the right materials. The competition also provides students with important team and project management skills they will need in their careers.
Throughout the entire school year, the USC team has dedicated themselves to preparing their canoe for the competition.
“There’s many different aspects that go into this competition,” Ramos explained. “There’s the races themselves, a technical report that’s due weeks in advance of the competition, a technical presentation during the competition and a display of the canoes”.
In the competition, there are various race categories, which included the co-ed race where two women and two men participate in a sprint of 100 meters forward and back, as well as separate men’s and women’s sprints that follow the same format but with either two men or two women.
However, it doesn’t end there, there’s also another category of races: the Slalom Races. These races consist of separate men’s and women’s races, although they’re a bit more complicated than that.
“There’s buoys that you have to go around, and you race with other schools. There’s around 10-15 schools we’re competing with,” Ramos said, “The competition that takes place in SoCal is the regional one, then the teams that win that competition go onto the society wide competition.
When it comes to constructing the canoe, team members typically specialize in specific tasks.
“I’m the senior captain, and there’s two teams of junior captains. One handles the mix design/aesthetics, while the other handles the construction,” said Ramos.
Ramos says the mix design/aesthetics team is in charge of deciding what materials to use, how much is necessary and how it’s going to look afterward. The team that handles the construction decides what the structural aspect of the canoe will be and how to effectively execute the design.
The competition entails a multitude of factors and necessitates significant collaboration.
The SC team comprises mostly civil engineering students, although, as Ramos explains, students from any major are welcome to join
“We’re open to anyone joining, no matter their major, as long as the students are creative and willing to problem solve,” claimed Ramos
Students who participate must also be dedicated. The act of paddling puts significant pressure on individuals to synchronize with each other effectively, requiring them to identify the best possible team dynamics
“We meet every week, often twice a week, just to work on the canoe,” Ramos said. “And in terms of paddling practices, we meet monthly if we’re unable to have bi-weekly practices.
Aside from the canoe racing competition, there are other design groups on the team that also competed at PSWS.
“There’s the environmental design team. They create a whole apparatus in which they’re given a solution they’re supposed to change into pure water. Then, there’s also the steel bridge team, and their mission is to create a bridge made only of steel in 45 minutes, and test the structure capacity of it,” Ramos said.
The regional concrete canoe race took place from March 23rd-25th, making it a 3-day competition. The competition consists mainly of technical events, but also incorporates team bonding exercises, like volleyball, basketball and scavenger hunts.
Ramos says team bonding is essential for a good performance at the competition.
“Team bonding is definitely important,” said Ramos, “and I don’t just mean bonding events at the competition — which, don’t get me wrong, a lot of comradery is built there — but we’ve been working on this canoe the entire year, meeting every week, so we’ve all grown extremely close and created an attachment not only to each other, but the project itself. People are so committed to the team, and it helps to bond us as one unit for competition.”
While the team didn’t qualify for the national finals championship, Ramos says they are determined to perform even better next year.
We’re only going to get better,” Ramos said. “After COVID-19, it’s been difficult starting back up and trying to improve from previous years, but the bar is set. I think we’ve had a lot of experience now, especially within these past few years. And we’re going to be performing a lot better because of it. Consistency is key; that’s what we’re working to achieve. I think we can place higher in the following years and continue to do this.”
The 2023 ASCE Concrete Canoe Finals will be held at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville June 10-12, 2023. 21 teams from around the world will compete in this year’s finals.
Published on April 26th, 2023
Last updated on April 27th, 2023