Academics

Building Bridges—and Canoes: Mason Civil Engineering Students Prepare for Competition

By Catherine Probst

Since last fall, two Mason civil engineering student teams have been working tirelessly to design and construct their own renditions of a concrete canoe and a steel bridge with plans to compete regionally and nationally with these creations. Each project, however, came with its own set of challenges.

Mason's concrete canoe team poses in the 670-pound canoe while they await judging at the regional American Society of Civil Engineers conference. Photo courtesy of Mason's ASCE Student Chapter.

Members of Mason’s concrete canoe team pose in the 670-pound canoe while they await judging at the regional American Society of Civil Engineers conference. Photo courtesy of Mason’s ASCE Student Chapter.

Leading the eight-member concrete canoe team was civil engineering student Anne Zheng. Since this was the team’s first time constructing a canoe and entering the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) competition, they got to work right away. Divided into two groups–the concrete mix group and the construction group–the team spent several months conducting preliminary research and testing before beginning construction on the canoe.

“We knew we were at a slight disadvantage compared to the other teams when we started working on the canoe because it was our first attempt,” says Zheng. “Therefore, we went into the competition not expecting to win, but hoping to create something of which we could all be proud and also learn a lot in the process.”

Working within a specified budget and certain rules and regulations given by ASCE, the canoe team was able to secure donations from several companies including Vulcan, 3M, and Design Build Construction LLC for concrete mix components and other tools. One of the most useful resources, however, was civil engineering student Tyler Malejko.

The concrete canoe goes into the water at State Park for its floatability test. Photo courtesy of Mason's ASCE Student Chapter.

The concrete canoe goes into the water at Black Hill Regional Park for its floatability test. Photo courtesy of Mason’s ASCE Student Chapter.

Malejko has more than 20 years of experience in the construction industry as a Project Management Professional. He joined the team late in the semester to help with the construction of the canoe after hearing about the project.

“When I learned of the project, I was more than willing to offer my expertise to the other students,” says Malejko. “I firmly believe that for students to be successful in the office, they need to have exposure to the construction industry and what really happens in the field. I am happy that I was able to help them with this.”

After several test runs, the team was able to create a concrete mix with just the right viscosity and density. Zheng compares the process to baking a cake. “We spent a lot of time testing out different ‘ingredients’ until we achieved the right consistency. Although it was time consuming, the process allowed the team to observe how concrete behaved under various circumstances.”

As a part of the competition, Mason raced its concrete canoe against other universities. Photo courtesy of Mason's ASCE Student Chapter.

As a part of the competition, Mason raced its concrete canoe against other universities. Photo courtesy of Mason’s ASCE Student Chapter.

It took only three Saturdays to construct a 20-foot canoe mold, which was made from pieces of wood, plywood, and Styrofoam and reinforced with galvanized welded wire mesh. After successfully covering the mold with the concrete mix, the team allowed the canoe to cure for 28 days before applying a sealer.

After 28 days, the team removed the mold and put the finishing touches on the canoe—which weighed in at about 670 pounds–by adding seats, constructing a transport cradle, and, most important, testing its floatability. According to the competition rules, the canoe must be completely submerged in water and resurface within two minutes. As a part of the competition, each team then had the opportunity to race their canoes in Black Hill Regional Park in Maryland.

“We were thrilled to see our canoe resurface well within the specified amount of time, and we are pretty confident to compete against the other student teams,” Zheng said prior to the competition.

Mason's steel bridge team prepares to compete in the regional American Society of Civil Engineers student competition. Photo courtesy of Mason's ASCE Student Chapter.

Mason’s steel bridge team prepares to compete in the regional American Society of Civil Engineers student competition. Photo courtesy of Mason’s ASCE Student Chapter.

At the same time that the concrete canoe team was hard at work, another team of 10 Mason civil engineering students was busy working on their own project: a 17-foot long, 450-pound steel bridge.

Zachary Malone, a senior civil engineering major, led this team through the design and construction process. Presented with a problem statement devised by ASCE, the bridge team was tasked with constructing a scale model to address the need of a fictional city for a steel bridge to help with traffic flow.

“Each year, the rules and regulations for the competition change” says Malone, “but with the combined knowledge and experience of my teammates, I felt very confident that we could create something great this year.”

The team assembles the green and gold bridge pieces in preparation for construction. Photo courtesy of Mason's ASCE Student Chapter.

The team assembles the green and gold bridge pieces in preparation for construction. Photo courtesy of Mason’s ASCE Student Chapter.

Similar to the students building the canoe, the team devoted most of their time to designing the bridge, as well as designing the connections to secure each steel beam. They also conducted several rounds of analysis including “load tests” to determine which design was the most efficient, would require the least amount of materials, had the simplest connections, and could hold the most weight under various circumstances.

The bridge team worked with a steel fabricators company in Winchester, Va., to secure steel beam donations for the bridge. Using 3-foot steel beams that could weigh no more than 20 pounds, the students then set to work drilling holes in the beams, welding the beams together with steel plates, and securing them with bolts.

The bridges are judged by a panel of engineers on several criteria: durability, constructability, usability, stiffness, construction speed, efficiency, economy, and attractiveness. The ASCE competition comes in two parts. First, the fully constructed bridge judged for aesthetics and appearance. The next day, the students must construct the bridge within 30 minutes.

As a part of the competition, the Mason team had to construct their bridge in less than 30 minutes. They won first place for time. Photo courtesy of Mason's ASCE Student Chapter.

As a part of the competition, the Mason team had to construct their bridge in less than 30 minutes. They won first place for construction speed. Photo courtesy of Mason’s ASCE Student Chapter.

“I can’t believe how much I have learned about the team environment,” says senior civil engineering major Jordan Dively, a five-year veteran of the steel bridge competition. “It is also a great learning experience to apply the abstract concepts we learned in class to a real-world problem.”

In early April, the two Mason teams joined several hundred other aspiring engineers from 14 universities in Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., at Howard University for the annual ASCE Conference. All of the civil engineering students participating were members of Mason’s ASCE student chapter.

Of the two teams, only the steel bridge engineers will be going on to the next level. The Mason steel bridge team took third place overall at the regional ASCE Virginias Conference Steel Bridge Contest. They placed first in construction speed, stiffness, and economy and third place in aesthetic display. Next, they take their bridge to compete at ASCE’s national competition to be held at the University of Washington, May 31-June 1, 2013.

“We hope to make Mason proud,” says Zheng.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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