Concrete canoes are heavy.
Nothing, though, compared to the weight of expectations.
Consider the situation – equal parts golden opportunity and pressure-packed problem – facing the University of Florida team as the ASCE National Concrete Canoe Competition launched in June.
With Gator Engineering teams already having won two ASCE national competitions earlier in the spring — the ASCE Sustainable Development Award at the EPA P3 competition in April and first place in the National Student Steel Bridge Competition in May — an unprecedented “triple crown” lay just within reach. Concrete Canoe was the third and final challenge.
“It was pretty funny, after Bridge won, to walk into the lab the next week,” said Chris Ferraro, Ph.D., P.E., research assistant professor at UF as well as steel bridge advisor and concrete canoe technical advisor. “‘No pressure,’ was the first thing we said to them – ‘No pressure.’”
“They work in the same lab, right next to us,” said Danielle Kennedy, A.M.ASCE, captain of the Concrete Canoe team.
“All of the students, all of our advisors, everyone was saying, ‘Steel Bridge won first. Are you going to win first too?’ So we were definitely feeling the pressure.”
As it turned out, the pressure proved no problem. The Forever Glades canoe took first place, making the University of Florida the first school to ever win national titles in Concrete Canoe and Steel Bridge in the same year.
“We’ve been close in Canoe, and we’ve won Steel Bridge once before. To have it happen in the same year was pretty amazing,” said Robert Thieke, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE, civil and coastal engineering department head and faculty advisor for the Concrete Canoe team. “It’s really nice for the students. They put in a huge amount of work for this.”
For Cammy Abernathy, Ph.D., dean of the university’s College of Engineering, the triple crown of success is evidence of the school’s emphasis on what she calls “educating the new engineer.”
“We place a lot of emphasis on outside-the-classroom activities,” Abernathy said. “We feel they prepare our students for the world of 21st century engineering.”
Abernathy said the school aims to teach technical excellence in the classroom while also encouraging students to innovate, work as a team, and learn leadership fundamentals through projects like the ASCE competitions.
Ferraro, who runs the on-campus lab shared by both the UF bridge and canoe teams, sees his students developing a variety of skills throughout the competition process.
“Critical, it’s absolutely critical,” Ferraro said. “And it’s using tools and machining materials and stuff like that, working on things, obviously. That’s one aspect of it. The other aspect of it is scheduling, planning, the design and engineering process.”
Kennedy said that the Concrete Canoe club was among the most educational experiences of her UF career.
“It teaches you to be more well-rounded,” she said. “Being a leader, being part of a team, the competition, time constraints, budget constraints.”
Abernathy graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1980. Hands-on projects, she said, were not as prevalent then. “I would’ve loved to have [participated]; it just wasn’t as emphasized at the time. This generation of students demands it. It really is obvious to me that they want to begin to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom immediately.”
That certainly was the agenda for Justin Rayl three years ago when he, having recently switched his major to civil engineering, attended his first ASCE meeting.
“All the guys seemed really cool,” Rayl said. “The main aspect that really appealed to me was the opportunity to put something on my resume that was really special.”
Two years later, Rayl got his wish as the UF Steel Bridge team for which he served as a co-captain was announced as the national champion at the competition’s awards banquet in May.
“It was pure shock,” Rayl said. “I didn’t know what to do at that moment. It was a truly awesome feeling.”
Rayl will be a senior in the fall. He may or may not resume his captain’s duties for the Steel Bridge team. Either way, he’ll remain heavily involved and his resume, as he had hoped at that first meeting, boasts a few special accomplishments.
“I think we have an excellent academic program here. Employers love our students,” Thieke said. “But this kind of thing, it gives them skills they just don’t get in a classroom.”
And all that pressure on the Concrete Canoe team? It’s really only a friendly rivalry between Gator Engineers – all who call Weil Hall home on the University of Florida campus.
The teams even celebrated with a captains’ dinner.
“Everybody gets along. We’re all friends,” Rayl said. “Everybody’s part of ASCE.”