Concrete Canoe and Steel Bridge teams excel at national competitions

// Civil & Environmental Engineering

Tags: CEE, Concrete Canoe, Steel Bridge, student organizations, students

In 2016, both the UW-Madison Concrete Canoe and Steel Bridge teams found success at their national competitions, winning fifth and eighth place, respectively.

Every year, the two teams compete regionally at the American Society of Civil Engineers Great Lakes Student Conference, hosted by a school in the conference. Perennial national contenders, each team advanced to its national competition this year, once again. The Steel Bridge team has qualified for nationals for 19 straight years—which is the longest streak in the nation.

The Concrete Canoe competition took place at the University of Texas at Tyler, where the team faced the desert heat in a three-day event that tested their design work and their physical stamina.

A panel of judges evaluated the team based on four equally weighted criteria: a technical design paper, its formal presentation, the final product, and the actual racing—which occurs during the event. Competing with more than 20 teams, the UW-Madison chapter placed within the top-five teams in most of the competition’s categories, including second in oral presentation, fourth in final product, and fifth overall. The canoe fared well in racing action, too: The team won second place in the men’s sprint race and fourth place in the co-ed sprint race.

UW-Madison Concrete Canoe team. Photo: Karly Paton
UW-Madison Concrete Canoe team. Photo: Karly Paton

Each year, the team must design its canoe to satisfy specific criteria. One of the biggest challenges is having to make a boat that is less dense than water. Aside from the regulations, team members have free reign over their design and the type of concrete they use, says UW-Madison team co-chair Alex Fasking, a civil and environmental engineering fifth-year senior.

“This year, we tried to come up with a similar design as last year in terms of speed and ability to turn, but with an easier finish and increased stability,” she says. “Instead of having a rounded outside, there were two sharper edges, and this made it easier for us to finish in a reasonable amount of time while also giving us the performance we wanted.”

The team combines students from a number of different engineering disciplines, which enables the students to collaborate and combine their varying design skillsets.

“While this team is composed primarily of civil engineers, we also have members ranging from mechanical to biological systems engineering,” Fasking says. “We recognize that a diverse team can approach problem solving with many unique perspectives, and that we can all learn from each other throughout that process.”

Students on the Steel Bridge Team also bring that same diversity. Andrew Tesch, the team’s co-chair and a physics major, says that there have been other physics students on the team as well, in addition to a genetics major, although the team is still largely made up of CEE students.

The national steel bridge competition took place at Brigham Young University in Utah this year, with more than 42 teams competing. Students are judged in large part by the cost-effectiveness of their design. The score itself is based on a monetary amount determined by adding the costs associated with structural efficiency and construction economy (the labor that went into building it). In this way, the criteria help students imagine the real-life costs of constructing a full-sized bridge, explains Tesch.

UW-Madison Steel Bridge team. Photo: Jason O'Neal
UW-Madison Steel Bridge team. Photo: Jason O’Neal

“They’re trying to relate the whole competition to the real world, in the sense that this is what engineers actually do—they create the best product they can, for the lowest cost,” he says.

The team’s final product was a 20-foot long bridge, weighing about 116 pounds, that is collapsible and able to fit into a relatively small box. Based on extensive analysis, the team decided to design the bridge using an overhead truss, which means that most of the structural support runs over the bridge, rather than beneath it. The team created the actual bridge at Endres Manufacturing, a steel manufacturing company in Waunakee, Wisconsin, that helps to fund the building process with both financial and in-kind support. In fact, both the bridge and the canoe teams receive support from CEE department, as well as from donors like Endres.

For members of both teams, collaboration among members to create a design project is deeply rewarding, and a perfect opportunity to practice their engineering skills outside of the classroom while also meeting other students.

“It’s a good way to get involved,” Tesch says. “The reason I like it so much is because I met a lot of my good friends through the organization, and it feels like a second family. I share a lot of classes with these people, and I can rely on them. It’s also a great way of getting to know the college on a more real level.”

Author: Lexy Brodt