Mississippi State University civil engineering students Kristen Sauceda, left, and Diana Linder are among a group of 15 MSU civil engineering students who will travel to Golden, Colorado, next month for the Concrete Canoe National Championship. The MSU canoe weighs 320 pounds and still floats atop the water. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
May 13, 2017 10:42:45 PM
Taking a ride in a concrete canoe.
It sounds like a colorful euphemism for a mafia hit, but for Mississippi State students Diana Linder and Kristen Sauceda, it's a reward for a year's work.
Linder and Sauceda are among a group of 15 MSU civil engineering students who will travel to Golden, Colorado, next month for the Concrete Canoe National Championship.
The American Society of Civil Engineers sponsors the competition. For 30 years, undergraduate civil engineering students from throughout North America have vied to craft the best canoe possible with the least likely of all materials.
"That's the whole idea," said Sauceda, a senor from New Madrid, Missouri, "to build a canoe from something you would never use, normally. That's where the engineering comes in."
Since last fall, as many as 28 students have participated in the project. There are currently 19 members on the team, of which 15 will be headed to the national championship at Colorado School of Mines from June 17-19.
MSU earned its spot in the national championship, where it will compete against 17 other teams, by winning its regional competition in March in Memphis. MSU is making its fourth ever trip to the finals.
"But we've been three times out of the last five years," noted Seamus Freyne, a MSU civil engineering professor who serves as the team's faculty adviser. "We're on a roll. There are more than 300 teams in North America, so we're already in the Top 25. That's pretty good."
Lighter than water
Freyne said the concept behind building a concrete canoe is pretty basic.
"Normal concrete has a density of 150 pounds per cubic foot," said Freyne, who has been the team's faculty adviser since arriving at MSU seven years ago and has been involved in the ASCE's concrete canoe competition for 29 years. "The density of water is 62.4 pounds per cubic foot. So you can see the problem. The challenge is to make the concrete lighter than water. Otherwise, it won't float.
"The students achieve that by the aggregates they use in the concrete," he added. "The concrete you see in these canoes will be in the 50-to-60-pound per cubic foot range."
For Linder, the year-long experience has been an opportunity to work with a team, network with other students from throughout the continent and learn new skills.
But, she confessed, the most exhilarating moment was when the canoe went from theory to practice.
"We had four teams working on this project months before we ever built the canoe. The day we actually got to put it in the water and race, well, words can't even describe the feeling," she said. "It was amazing. Just seeing how it looked, how it raced and how well it worked. You spend so much time on design and theory and testing components, but until you put it in the water and actually see how it works, you don't know for sure. It's a combination of relief and pride."
This year's canoe tips the scales at a hefty 320 pounds, about 120 heavier than last year's canoe, which failed to advance to the national championship.
"Every year is different," Sauceda said. "The rules and specifications change every year, so you can't just find a formula you like and stay with it. You have to start over.
"This year's canoe is quite a bit heavier, but some of that was by design," she added. "Last year, we had some stability issues with the canoe, so we wanted to address that with this year's canoe."
Even at 320 pounds, the MSU canoe is just the fifth heaviest among the finalists, where the weight ranged from 125 pound (Universite' Laval of Quebec, Canada) to 394 pounds (The Citadel).
"I think that range shows that students have different approaches and make use of different materials," Freyne said. "Although there are rules and limitations, the students are given a wide latitude of what materials can be used. They also have to make a design about the qualities they want to produce. If you're making a really light canoe, you're making a conscious choice to make the concrete extremely thin and the risk there is the possibility of a catastrophic crack. On the other end, a canoe that is heavy will be harder to row.
"That's what I like about this competition," he added. "All of those decisions are totally in the hands of the students."
The competition consists of four races: men's and women's sprints (200 meters), endurance (800 meters) and co-ed (400 meters). Two rowers compete in each canoe, except in the co-ed, where it's two male and two female students.
"We have weekly practices on the lake at campus," Freyne said. "Obviously, if you have strong paddlers that helps."
Even so, the race results contribute just 25 percent to the overall scoring.
"The races are fun, obviously," Freyne said. "But ultimately, this is about the engineering. Twenty-five percent of the score is based on a (question-and-answer session) as the students explain their work. Another 25 percent is on the report they submit on the engineering used in the project and 25 percent is on aesthetics, the design and appearance of the canoe."
Even while the MSU canoe is packed away and ready for the trip to Colorado, the MSU team is still working on its reports and practicing for the race and Q&A session.
There is also something else they are working on: funding.
The team has set up a GoFundMe account (https://www.gofundme.com/MSUConcreteCanoe2017Nationals) to raise the $14,300 needed to cover the trip.
At press time, the campaign had raised $995.
"We really hope people will chip in and help," Sauceda said. "We've worked really hard on this and we're so excited about making the finals. Hopefully, people will want to help us out."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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