image courtesy of Carolyn Schwartz '18

The 2016 canoe, Thrakos makes it's debut at the competition.

October 3, 2016

Team Spotlight | Project Team Constructs ‘Concrete Canoe’

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We’ve all seen wood float and rocks sink in water. This is why boats are usually made of wood and other light materials. But could a boat made out of concrete float?

A group of Cornell undergraduates attempt to accomplish that feat every year. Cornell’s concrete canoe — an engineering project team associated with Cornell’s civil and environmental engineering school — strives to create a canoe from concrete for the American Society for Civil Engineers’ annual Upstate New York regional competition. The team works throughout the year on designing, building and finishing a new concrete canoe, one that is used to compete regionally with other schools.

Carolyn Schwartz ’18, team lead, pointed out that building the boat is not an easy task due to the unconventional nature of the idea.

“Creating a canoe out of concrete is an engineering challenge where the main objective is to build a boat out a material that is not typically use to build these type of objects and it is considered to do the opposite of floating,” Schwartz said.

The team is divided into six sub-teams each of which works on different aspects of the project throughout the building and design process. The sub teams — aesthetic, mix, mold,  analysis, logistics, and the paddling team — all work to make this project a success

Among the sub-teams is the aesthetics team, which is in charge of the appearance and presentation of the canoe. The mix, mold and analysis teams work together to decide the material they want to use, the mold design they want to work with and using this information, the analysis sub team designs computer programs and performs software analysis to improve the efficiency of the boat. Budget management and scheduling is taken care of by the logistics team. Finally, the paddling team competes by racing the canoe against the other universities of the region in the competition.

Even though building a floating concrete canoe and succeeding in future competitions are the most important parts of this project,  the team does not consider prior experience a fundamental requirement for those who want to join.

According to Daniella Blyakhman ’18, team lead, the interest in hands-on work is the quality that matters the most for those working on the project.

“On this team you learn from experience [and] you learn from other members,”  Blyakhman said. “We don’t expect people to know [anything] about concrete or any other material used in this process, but we like students who are committed and dedicated.”

Schwartz stressed that being an engineering major is also not a prerequisite for joining the team, however, interest in the project is paramount.

“The applicants that become part of our team are those who are interested and feel that they can contribute new things while they are learning.” Schwartz said. “We pick members who are motivated and have an interest in the team, because we are not looking for experience, we are looking for interest.”

It is the huge the potential of the project that attracted Blyakhman to the team.

“For me, the project in itself is amazing. When I came to Cornell, I was looking for a project that I can see happen in the real life and is also very unique.”

As the saying goes, there is no substitute for experience.

“Even though it’s an engineering project, it’s not like doing research in a lab where there is a clear cut experiment,” Schwartz said. “Here you can experiment with whatever you want, year to year. It is a very open ended project, and that is how the real world is like and how engineers get experience.”

The intellectual and cultural diversity of Cornell is also a major attraction for the members, a quality visible in the composition of the project team.

“What we like the most about this team is that [you] can see engineering out the text books and we get surrounded by different people, from different majors and interest who come together to work in different areas of this project,” Blyakhman said.

The practical skills gained by working on the canoe are unparalleled according to Schwartz.

“Being an engineering student is a demanding task, but finding a place where you can combine what you learn and put it into practice is a fun and unforgettable experience,” Schwartz said, “Looking at a problem from a unique point of view helps us gain understanding of our professional fields.”

While working on a project of this magnitude brings satisfaction and fulfillment, the leads acknowledge that being a part of the team requires time and commitment from all of it’s members.

“Working on this project has been worthy because it is something I love,” Schwartz said, “but the only thing negative about it, is that we have to add it our schedule like any other class.”

For these leaders, the ideal team-building project is something where everybody on the team have something different to contribute and feels comfortable participating.

“As leaders that’s the environment we try to create for our team, we want people in our team to come to the lab and learn something new every year independently of the age, major or experience they have,” Schwartz said.

Being together for years brings a sense of confidence and frankness to the members when communicating with one another.

“Because we know all the members so well, we try to remind each other that at the end of the day we all are working to accomplish the same objectives,” Blyakhman said.

With the effort, talent and attitude the students are put in this project, Cornell concrete canoe team is prepared to sail to victory.