Engineering project: He ain't heavy, he's my canoe Picture a tight pack of canoes sprinting across the Schuylkill River at breakneck speed. Now picture these same boats, constructed solely from concrete and steel. Sounds crazy, no? But for the past 15 years, such vessels, designed by students and faculty in the Engineering School, have been able to do more than just float. Last year, at the national race in Buffalo, New York, the team placed 10th out of 20 teams. "The nationals were very competitive there was a lot of school spirit," said Engineering senior Rowena Mohammed, a competitor in both the women's and mixed racing divisions. Last year the University team spent just $100 to build their 198-pound vessel, but competed against schools like the University of California at Berkeley which spent over $1500. Students will design a new craft for the upcoming spring races but expect to stick to the same budget. While their boats have propelled them into the last two national competitions, team members fear that without high tech materials and designs, their efforts in the intense national competition will not be sufficient to win. "You can't compete in the nationals anymore with this kind of canoe," Mohammed said. "Innovative design and new concrete mixes are becoming more crucial." Designed and built in the Structural Testing Lab in the Towne Building, the canoes and their molds lie alongside of high tech prototypes of Kevlar cables and Fiberglass beams, bound for use on spacestations and in Antarctica. While students are involved in all phases of design and production, guidance is given by civil engineering faculty and staff. Students use the expertise of staff advisor Frank Brown, who has over 15 years of experience with the boats. Brown said he helps students understand that "the point of the game is to build a lightweight canoe." The project, which takes about five months to complete, begins with the construction of a concrete mold. This year's model took the shape of a lightweight Sawyer racing shell, made from Kevlar, the material used in bullet-proof vests. The mold, which is made in two sections, is then lined with steel mesh to give the canoe rigidity and strength. Then a lightweight concrete mixture is applied over the wire and allowed to dry. After the sheet hardens, the two halves of the mold are pulled apart and the canoe slides out. "It's like a cake," said Engineering senior Ed Kellie, the leading student member of the canoe-designing team. Building a waterborne vessel that is up to 18 and a half feet long, 34 inches wide and 15 inches deep from concrete may seem like an impossible task. Of course, most people would expect a boat made from concrete to sink. "The reason it floats is displacement," Brown explained. "That's when a volume or weight of a fluid is replaced by a floating solid body of the same weight." While light weight is crucial for speed, the students found last year that a heavier vessel can have advantages as well. Once, the students reported, the Penn canoe struck an opposing vessel from Villanova in a tight corner. "We sunk their boat," recalled Engineering senior Matt Malozi, adding that the Penn craft withstood the collision because, "ours was a better boat." He concluded that if a boat is too light, it may not be able to withstand the eventual "crash and bash." The regional and national competitions, sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers, are aimed to encourage students nationwide to design and build boats and compete both for the glory of victory and for some more practical reasons. The project teaches "concrete structure, project planning, structural reinforcement, and teamwork," Malozi said. "Our education is very theoretical," Mohammed added. "This provides practical experience and complements what we learn in the classroom." But the students are quick to admit that "basically, it's a fun activity."Comments powered by Disqus
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