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December 12, 2017

UW students cement their winning streak

Written By: Peter Jurich

The American Society of Civil Engineers has held the National Concrete Canoe Competition for the last 30 years and University of Wisconsin-Madison students have been no stranger to the challenge. In June 2017, they competed against 19 other teams, including three from Canada and one from China, to win sixth place overall, fourth for oral presentation and fifth for design paper.

“It’s one of those unique challenges to show the ability of engineering students across the nation to be creative,” says this year’s project co-manager Addison Pierskalla, who oversaw the canoe’s design and construction with Allissa Munden. “You have to create a concrete mix that’s less dense than water, so when you completely submerge the canoe, it floats back up on its own. Not only do you get to create a work of art out of concrete, but you also get to physically race and paddle in it.”

Students with their boat
The “Prairie Chevron” canoe pays homage to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style architecture and chevron stained glass windows. Photo courtesy of the Colorado School of Mines.

Pierskalla says this has been one of the biggest years for team membership, with about 30 students helping to build the canoe. Typically, civil engineers make up half the group and the rest represents mechanical, industrial and chemical engineering. Many students participate for several years. “The team has a family feel,” Pierskalla says. “You become best friends over the years and through that, you take on more responsibility on the technical aspects, too.”

The rules for the competition are distributed each September, followed by regionals in March and nationals in June. The UW-Madison team has a history of success, having won regionals several years in a row and nationals a total of seven times. Many alumni continue to be involved at some level. “I remember getting about 10 text messages from alumni the morning that the rules were released saying they’re up now,” Pierskalla says.

Faculty advisor Chin Wu provides assistance when needed, but the project is driven by the students’ own motivation. This year’s design was inspired by the Wisconsin-born architect Frank Lloyd Wright, with concrete inlays paying homage to the chevron design of Prairie Style stained glass windows.

In addition to the race, the students—ranging from freshman to senior, plus an occasional graduate student or two—compete for the best canoe display and oral presentation, for which an entire day is dedicated.

With such a tight-knit group, initiative—such as plenty of note-taking at the displays and presentations—doesn’t go unnoticed. “The thing I was most pleased with was the maturity of the team, especially in the younger members,” Pierskalla says. “They took careful notes because they were so interested in driving the team next year, not because we told them to do it.”

For Pierskalla, the benefits of getting involved go well beyond resume building and winning a race. “This is an opportunity to learn the skills you want to use for full-time employment,” he says. “Your goal should be to better yourself and your team by focusing on something positive, other than just winning the competition.”