Concrete Canoe Club fosters problem-solving
Imagine the difficulty of trying to navigate a lake through a slalom course in a canoe - a canoe made of concrete, to be exact.
For UConn's Concrete Canoe Club - a campus organization associated with the National Concrete Canoe Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which builds and races concrete canoes - the challenges aren't confined to the races themselves. In fact, the most difficult obstacles appear long before the canoe has even been introduced to a body of water.
"Our job is to design, fabricate and race a 20-foot-long canoe," said the club's president, Kevin Vliet, a civil engineering major.
Once a week, Vliet and his team of 10 to 12 fellow students, most of whom are engineering majors, convene in the concrete lab of the Castleman Building to test different styles of concrete mixes and casting concrete molds.
The molds, which are laser-cut, consist of foam, agricates, lightweight polymers and plastics, and must cure for 28 days before they are ready to be used.
"We focus primarily on getting a canoe that doesn't break and is strong," Vliet said.
Striving to build the most effective canoe possible demands weeks upon weeks of preparation, especially when it comes to the molding process, which the Vliet and the Canoe Club's secretary, Brian Winger, both identified as the hardest step in the Concrete Canoe process.
"The actual casting is pretty tough," Vliet said. "You have to build the mold in a way that when you cast it and take it out of the mold, it all comes off intact."
Winger compared it to taking a freshly baked cake out of its pan: the goal is to release the cake from the pan cleanly, but this task is difficult when the cake tends to stick to the sides of the pan.
The Canoe Club will move on to the molding process this weekend, because they recently finished concocting their concrete mix. With the annual competition fast approaching - the 2013 contest is to be held at UMass Dartmouth in mid-April - the team still has plenty of work to do. In addition to crafting and racing the canoe, the Concrete Canoe Club must submit a written report and deliver an oral presentation detailing the design and construction of their canoe.
At the regional competition, UConn and the 10 other competing institutions will be judged on the basis of both the oral and written reports, canoe design and of course, the results of three races: a sprint race, an endurance race and a slalom course race. The top competitors at the regional competition will qualify to compete at the national level in June at the University of Illinois.
While members of the Concrete Canoe Club must exert high levels of brainpower to succeed in the competition, the physicality of the challenge - both in the construction and racing phases - is one that shouldn't be overlooked.
"[Our members] need to know how to row," Vliet said. "We'll go to Columbia Lake before our competition to practice rowing."
In addition to improving engineering skills at UConn, the organization provides a major advantage for its members outside of academia. As a nationally recognized organization, the Concrete Canoe Club looks impressive on a resume, not only because of its reputation, but for the leadership, problem-solving and critical thinking skills it fosters. Both Vliet and Winger have participated in internships where their supervisors were past Canoe Club members.
Yet for Winger and Vliet, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of their experience in the Concrete Canoe Club is the chance to network with others who share a passion for engineering, especially when it comes to designing and building contraptions like canoes.
"It's nice to meet new people," Winger said. "Especially those who work for the same goal."
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