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Paddling a 250 Ib Concrete Canoe is No Problem for Notre Dame Students

A strong tailwind propelled Jake Miller and Jared Lee forward, they were able to weave through the obstacles and then speed across the open lagoon, easily. The return, however, was taxing, the ferocious headwind nearly stalled their process. They had to fight with everything they had to keep their 250 pound vessel on course. But with over twenty of their classmates, braving the frigid cold to cheer for them from the banks, they pushed on and completed the race.

This was ASCE’s annual Concrete Canoe Competition, held March 31st in Milwaukee, WI. This year Notre Dame’s team is celebrating because they brought home third place -- the best they have done in recent history.

Civil engineering students Michael Stafford and William Markle competing in the 1972 Concrete Canoe Competition.
Civil engineering students Michael Stafford and William Markle competing in the 1972 competition.

The first intercollegiate Concrete Canoe Competition took place in 1971 with just two teams: Purdue and The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But Notre Dame students did not waste time and formed a team in order to participate the very next year.

This year’s team has been working since the fall to design and build their canoe. Emily McCusker, the mix design team captain, developed six or seven iterations that she tested by pouring cylinders to test tension, cubes for compression, and beams for flexural strength. Once they settled on a mix, they spent a full day casting the canoe, using a styrofoam mold, which other team members had designed with the help of AutoCAD.

Co-Project Manager, Laura Bobich says she joined concrete canoe because she liked the idea of applying the skills she learned in class to a real project, “Especially my first year I was doing mix design, while I was in the class about mix design, so I would learn something in class and use it in canoe or learn something in canoe and then use it in class.”

Perhaps the most important thing the students, especially the leadership team, has learned from concrete canoe is how to see a project from start-to-finish and how to inspire a team to work well together.

 Team photo taken after finishing casting the canoe.
Team photo taken after finishing casting the canoe.
Structural Captain Jake Miller described it like this, “It’s interpersonal interactions. It’s motivating a team -- to show up at 8am on casting day, to show up at 8am to load the canoe. It’s being able to build relationships with the people you are working with, so that they will do a good job.”

The three leadership team members who are seniors definitely see themselves using the interpersonal skills they learned through concrete canoe moving forward. Co-Project Manager Jared Lee is headed to Pensacola to train to become a naval flight officer. Emily McCusker is going to work for the Walsh Group in Chicago doing project management and Laura Bobich will be a project manager at Arco/Murray, a design build firm in the suburbs of Chicago.

Professor Liz Kerr, who participated in concrete canoe as an undergraduate at the University of Evansville, is the faculty mentor for the club. She is excited because this year Notre Dame’s team managed to beat her alma mater for the first time. Professor Kerr sees concrete canoe as a having many benefits for students, “It gives students the chance to take on an open-ended design project. It also teaches students leadership skills and problem solving skills and it helps to build a fun community environment within the department.”