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Students Learn Life Lessons In College Building Contests
Go Team. University of Wisconsin team nailed third straight canoe building and racing title.

College-level engineering contests are more than an opportunity for students to socialize. Participants in the recent National Concrete Canoe Competition and the National Student Steel Bridge Competition relish the chance to show off their engineering practice chops on real-life challenges, with changing rules and parameters that confound students each year.

"In the real world, there’s standards for everything you build, so this forces us to be creative and think," says Jaime Kurten, a captain of the University of Wisconsin-Madison team, which on June 27, became the first college team to win the canoe-building contest three years in a row. The competition, sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers, had the 21 teams design, construct and race their concrete creations.

This year’s event, held at Clemson University, Clemson, S.C., required students to use 15% ordinary sand in their aggregate mixture and either recycled coal fly ash or ground granulated blast furnace slag for up to 25% of binding material. The mixture made for heavier boats, which prompted teams to use carbon fiber as a lighter weight strengthening substitute for wire mesh or steel, says Dennis Martenson, a senior project manager at Camp Dresser & McKee, Cambridge, Mass., and ASCE president-elect.

The U.S. Military Academy team only made it to fifth place, but it impressed the judges enough to win a separate award for materials innovation, says Brad Putnam, a Clemson professor. West Point’s decision to heat Styrofoam in the canoe aggregate mix allowed its team "to meet mixture degradation requirements while coming up with a new, lightweight option," he says.

Challenge. Bridge building team tackled new specs.

Mike Shydlowski, president and CEO of Degussa Admixtures Inc., the competition’s Cleveland-based lead sponsor, says contest participation can add to graduates’ resumes. "The students in this [event] have a large advantage over students who have never worked with new technologies and new admixtures," he says. "These students understand the possibilities–that nothing is out of reach." Shydlowski admits the competition has become an important "recruiting tool" for his firm, and likely others.

The steel bridge competition, held at the University of Central Florida in Orlando in late May, included 11 rule changes, says Kevin Beery, a participant from the University of Florida, Gainesville, and team captain for the 2006 competition. Among other things, students had to design their bridges with one 21.5-ft clear span instead of two as in previous years. "It made things a lot more difficult. We had to go with a truss design, as opposed to a single-beam or girder design," he says. "This adds more weight to the bridge, but also offers better stability and decreases deflection."

Students also note some non-technical contest benefits, including experience in time management, multi-tasking, team communication and leadership. Beery says his team spent more than 1,500 hours fabricating its contest entry. "All the milling and welding was done by students," says teammate Andre Tousignant. "I wouldn’t have an internship, contacts or communication skills if I didn’t compete in steel bridge." One canoe contest judge notes that women participants’ better communications skills even helped them outpaddle the men.

And teams that lost points for mistaken dimensions or directions, "they learn a lot about the reality of failure," adds ASCE’s Martenson.

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