UW Today

This is an archived article.

March 31, 1998

UW hosting concrete canoe races, bridge-building contest as part of civil engineering ‘olympics’

For Puget Sound residents who didn’t get their fill of unusual events from watching the Winter Games of Nagano, the University of Washington is hosting a civil engineering olympics, of sorts, featuring concrete canoe races and a steel bridge-building cont est.

The competitions, part of the regional student conference of the American Society of Civil Engineers, will include 14 universities from throughout the Pacific Northwest. The steel bridge contest will run from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday (April 4) on the main floor of Gould Hall on the UW campus. The concrete canoe races will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday (April 5) at Green Lake. The events are free and open to the public.

In addition to displaying their engineering prowess and having the opportunity to one-up regional rivals, the competitors will be vying for the chance to go on to national contests later in the spring. The UW teams have an added incentive to win this year since 1998 marks the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the university’s civil engineering department.

The steel bridge-building team hopes to build on last year’s success, when the UW knocked off defending national champion University of Alaska to win the regional con test, then took 14th place out of 40 teams at the national competition. The concrete canoe team, on the other hand, is singularly focused on swamping cross-state rival and perennial regional winner, Washington State University.

“There’s definitely a riv alry with WSU because they always win the canoe races,” explains Nete Leth, president of the UW student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which is hosting the conference. “We want to beat WSU no matter what.”

Last year’s canoe team members were confident they had a superior design, but floundered on their paddling techniques. “Our paddlers have been training since last summer,” boasts Leth. “We’re going to be ready this year.”

Regardl ess of where the UW squads finish in the standings, however, team members say the competitions provide an invaluable, hands-on learning experience. Relying on material covered in their courses as well as outside research and consulting, the students have spent months designing, testing and building their canoe and bridge entries. The contests, Leth says, allow them to see how they stack up against their peers.

In addition to being tested in Sunday’s sprint and long-distance races, the concrete canoes w ill be judged on design, appearance and technical soundness from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday on the HUB lawn. After sending spies to last year’s national competition, the UW team set out to improve the design, concrete mix and finish of this year’s canoe — appropriately dubbed Centennial. The biggest changes, says team co-leader Eric O’Brien, are the canoe’s unique teardrop shape and smooth, car-like finish that belies its concrete construction. Though it may seem impossible, concrete can indeed float if it is made with buoyant volcanic rock and light-weight binding material rather than conventional sand, gravel and cement. Aside from its hefty 130 pound weight, Centennial resembles a normal canoe and is perfectly seaworthy.

The UW bridge-building team wi ll be racing the clock to assemble the 50-plus closely-machined steel parts that make up its span. The bridge must sit on abutments that are about 20 feet apart and span an imaginary river. The builders cannot cross the river during assembly and lose poin ts for dropping tools or parts during assembly. The four team members who will do the assembly have reduced their time to just under 10 minutes, which they believe is good enough to put them in the hunt for another regional title. In addition, the bridges will be judged on their appearance, weight-bearing capacity and how much they bend. The UW span weighs less than 100 pounds and can hold over two tons.

“Our goal is for the bridge-building team to return to nationals,” Leth says. “It’s an honor to be h osting the conference during our centennial year so we really want to do well in the competitions and reflect positively on the department.”

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For more information, contact Leth at (206) 783-7282 or nleth@u.washington.edu

For production quality images of the UW concrete canoe team working on Centennial or taking Centennial out in the water, contact Greg Orwig at gorwig@u.washington.edu or (206) 543-2580.