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 June 2006 Spotlight

The Challenge of the Concrete Canoe

While many of us might not think of the words “concrete” and “canoe” in the same sentence, the truth is that engineering students have been proving for decades that concrete canoes can not only be built, but can be raced against each other. Students will prove this again at the 19th Annual National Concrete Canoe Competition, which will be held June 15–17 at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla.

Concrete canoes have played a prominent role in Paul Tikalsky’s career as an engineer and educator for over 25 years. Tikalsky, a member of ASTM International Committee C09 on Concrete and Concrete Aggregates, first built canoes along with his teammates while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1980s. Later, Tikalsky was the faculty supervisor of students involved in canoe construction at Santa Clara University and, currently, he is the materials advisor for the canoe team at Penn State University, where he serves as a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

First Place, 2005: University of Wisconsin—Madison.

All of this experience makes Tikalsky eminently qualified to act as the head judge at the national competition in Oklahoma this month, which has come to be known as the “America’s Cup of Civil Engineering.” Tikalsky will head a team of judges that includes fellow ASTM members Kenneth Caubble, Michael Hall and Steve Trost, as well as Ward Malisch, senior managing director, American Concrete Institute.

Each year, the National Concrete Canoe Competition, which is organized by the American Society of Civil Engineers and sponsored by Degussa Admixtures, Inc., gives engineering students the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to a real-life project. In addition, building and racing a concrete canoe in regional and (hopefully) national competitions gives students valuable team and project management skills. Teams that reach the nationals compete in four main categories: aesthetics and adherence to design parameters, a technical paper, a business presentation and canoe races.

Tikalsky, who also served as a judge in last year’s national competition, says that teams that make it to this level are highly motivated and have learned to look at innovative and alternative solutions to a common engineering problem. “The teams see the complexities of materials, construction and design in what some see as a simple material like concrete,” Tikalsky says. “They learn that there is nothing simple about it. The chemistry, physics and design principles that they have studied in school all play a role in the success of the top teams.

“The students have shown me that there are a lot of extraordinary bright young minds out there with creative and innovative solutions to problems,” says Tikalsky. “This leaves the future in very capable hands.”

While Tikalsky is returning as a judge, this will be the first year that Ken Caubble, Mike Hall and Steve Trost will be involved as judges on the national level. Caubble, a member of Committees C01 and C09, and president and executive director, Ohio Ready Mixed Concrete Association, thinks that the competition is a great way for undergraduate engineering students to gain practical experience working on a team project, and to help them gain a better understanding of concrete as a building material. “I’m always amazed at the creativity and innovative techniques that are used building the canoes.”

Hall, materials engineer, Dolese Bros. Co., Oklahoma City, says he hopes that the students learn the importance of sampling and testing materials the same way every time when researching properties of materials. “I also am certain to learn more about canoe technology, which is a new field to me,” says Hall, who notes that he hopes to see the contestants having fun with the experience.

Trost, director, research and development, Strategic Solutions International, LLC, first participated in the concrete canoe competition as a graduate student in 1996. “I like the competition because it requires true engineering,” says Trost. “Many civil engineering works can be easily over-designed without much attention paid to the cost of over-designing,“ says Trost. “Also, a significant component of the overall competition involves actually racing the canoe. This requires a real-world, practical approach to the design rather than a purely academic one.” Trost is a member of ASTM Committee C09, as well as Committees D04 on Road and Paving Materials, D18 on Soil and Rock and E28 on Mechanical Testing.

All of the ASTM member judges agree that a wide variety of ASTM International standards under the jurisdictions of Committee C01 and C09 would be valuable to students designing and building a concrete canoe. //

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