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Engineering students prep for canoe, bridge contests

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Syl Kacapyr
steel bridge team
Ope Oladipo/University Photography
Steel bridge team co-leader Sean Leng Smith '15 participates in a bridge construction practice run in the Hollister basement.
concrete canoe
Ope Oladipo/University Photography
The concrete canoe is called "Ursa Major" and is about half the density of standard industrial concrete.

This weekend, shivering students in wetsuits racing canoes made of concrete will grace Cayuga’s waters.

Fourteen schools will visit Ithaca for the 2014 American Society of Civil Engineers Regional Conference, hosted by Cornell for the first time since 2007. The April 24-26 events will feature the concrete canoe race and steel bridge competition, in which students race to construct a modular steel bridge.   

In the past few weeks, the Cornell teams have worked around the clock to prepare their respective entries while doing due diligence as the host school: recruiting volunteers, receiving safety permits, organizing parking and planning meals for their guests.

Every evening around 5 p.m., the concrete canoe team meets at Allan H. Treman State Marine Park to launch a practice canoe to prepare for race day, which will include men’s and women’s, as well as co-ed sprints and endurance races. Competition will open with a “swamp test” – filling the canoes with water and testing their flotation.

The Cornell canoe weighs 250 pounds and is half as dense as industrial concrete – about 62 pounds per cubic foot (pcf), as opposed to the standard 140 pcf. Achieving this featherweight, floatable design involved many hours of structural analysis and creative mixing of lightweight aggregates, including hollow glass spheres, crushed glass and polyvinyl alcohol fibers, said team leader Jacqueline Maloney ’14.

The Cornell design this year includes gunwales, ribbing and other elements for buoyancy and speed, said Irene Lin ’14, mold and analysis sub team leader. And the team made the most of past missteps; last year’s canoe fell victim to shrinkage cracking, but was repurposed as the outer mold for this year’s new-and-improved vessel.

“We learned as we went along this year, because we didn’t have enough time to design it all and then build it all, so we had to do it simultaneously, which was a challenge,” Maloney said.

When they’re not on the lake practicing, the canoe team is huddled in their Hollister design space, using papier-mache, painting and putting finishing touches on their entry. A quarter of their score will be on aesthetics, which is why the appearance sub team led by Lindsey Yingst ’14 is busy making both the canoe and its environs beautiful. They’ve dubbed this year’s design “Ursa Major” with a starry night theme, complete with a stand modeled after Cornell’s Fuertes Observatory.

They share the Hollister basement with their steel bridge team counterparts, who can be seen at all hours in hardhats, safety glasses and tool belts doing practice construction runs.

The steel bridge competition challenges students to design a bridge that can be assembled quickly by as few builders as possible. The constructed bridge undergoes rigorous structural tests like load bearing and deflection, or how much the bridge bends under thousands of pounds of stress.

The Cornell team has elected a four-person build team for their 17-foot-wide, 27 inch-high under-truss bridge. They’ll be judged on such categories as build minutes – time it takes multiplied by number of builders ­– and construction economy, which Cornell placed first in last year.

Being part of the steel bridge team has given co-leader Inshera Abedin ’15 insight into how civil engineers must troubleshoot and problem-solve post design. “This is where our team has had problems – going from design to construction,” she said. “However as Cornell engineers, we’ve learned to thrive under pressure and think quickly on our feet.”

The concrete canoe and steel bridge teams must also prepare oral presentations and papers to explain their design process and engineering analyses.

The steel bridge competition is April 25, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. in Lynah Rink, and the concrete canoe competition is April 26, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. at Allan H. Treman State Marine Park.