Montana State students who built concrete canoe win regional competition

BOZEMAN — What’s blue, floats and is made of concrete? Ask a team of engineering undergraduates at Montana State University, and they’ll readily answer: their canoe.

Now displayed in Norm Asbjornson Hall, the 18-foot-long craft is a monument to a standout competition season that saw the MSU team paddle to first place at a regional tournament after countless hours designing and building the craft from scratch.

“The challenge is making the concrete less dense than water and shaping it in a way that the canoe won’t break,” said team captain Jenna Brogren, a junior majoring in civil engineering. “There’s a really wide range of ways to attack this problem.”

Last October, Brogren and other members of MSU’s student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers took on the challenge defined by the national ASCE organization. Their concrete canoe would have to be lighter than water so as not to sink if it capsized or broke while they paddled in a series of timed races. And they would also be evaluated on their technical knowledge and the aesthetics of their design.

“It’s a really unique experience,” said Kirsten Matteson, the team’s faculty adviser and assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering. Typically, concrete — made up of various-sized particles such as sand and gravel bonded by a hardening cement — is made to be dense to withstand compression forces in a building or bridge, she explained. It’s much different and more complex to design lightweight concrete that can float while still being strong when formed into a thin shape.

“The students really have to understand how the different materials in concrete work together,” Matteson said. “And they have to get the consistency of the material just right to be able to work with it.”

For months, some of the students, led by civil engineering major William Landrey, researched and experimented with materials for fashioning the hull. Ultimately, they arrived at a mix that included tiny bubble-filled beads of recycled glass, lightweight particles of shale, plastic fibers and a specialized binder. The particle sizes were designed to pack densely together to create strength, while the lightweight nature of the materials helped keep the overall weight of the canoe at 184 pounds.

Other students, led by civil engineering majors Sam Curtis and Matthew Cornyn, designed the canoe’s shape. Blending a narrow, streamlined racing profile with the flat and stable form found in cargo canoes, the hull design also reduced weight while considering that up to four novice paddlers would have to propel and steer the craft during competition.

“In our structures classes we learn a lot about how to apply these concepts to buildings, but with the canoe you get to experiment and learn it at a deeper level,” said Curtis, originally from Madison, Wisconsin. “You’re getting to do things that even a lot of graduate students haven’t worked on.”

Then came construction day, when the team labored to make the canoe in a single push so the concrete would dry uniformly with the desired strength. They spread a roughly quarter-inch-thick layer of blue-tinted concrete over a form of the hull made of foam, then laid down lightweight fiberglass mesh for reinforcement, followed by another thin layer of concrete. Foam was embedded at each end of the canoe to help increase buoyancy.

Once dried, the canoe was ready for action, but the 2022 Pacific Northwest ASCE Student Symposium in British Columbia, where the MSU team would normally compete, was to be held virtually because of COVID-19 restrictions at the U.S.-Canada border. Wanting to actually race their canoe, the team arranged to compete as a guest at the Rocky Mountain regional symposium held near Denver in early April.

“Some of us had never canoed before,” Brogren said. Once they got to the event, where the races were held on a lake, enthusiasm overtook inexperience, she said. “Being there and all having the same goal, we were all really excited.”

Being about four times the weight of a typical canoe, the MSU craft “was definitely more difficult to paddle,” Curtis said. During the sprint races, which included co-ed as well as men’s and women’s events, the team’s flat hull design made it more difficult for the inexperienced paddlers to stay on track. But during the slalom race, which involved making tight turns, MSU “killed it,” Curtis said, finishing a full minute ahead of the next team. Most of what the students were evaluated on was the presentation of their design. Altogether they earned enough points to rank first.

“The goal was to just make a canoe and compete, so to have the students make such a strong finish was awesome,” Matteson said. Other team members included construction lead Andrew Blickensderfer, reinforcement lead Konnor Johnston, aesthetics design lead Taleen Koudsi, as well as Cash Cota, John Shaw, Trey Wheeler, Henry Wilkey and Sean Williams, who helped with all aspects of design and construction.

The win was especially significant because MSU hasn’t competed in the event since 2004, focusing instead on other ASCE competitions like one that involves making small steel bridges. This year marked a resurgence of student interest in the canoe competition, and the team hopes their experience can help set up MSU for future success, according to Brogren, who serves as co-vice president and president-elect of MSU’s ASCE chapter.

It couldn’t come at a better time, with MSU set to co-host the 2023 Pacific Northwest ASCE Student Symposium on its Bozeman campus next April. The team is recruiting members for next year, Brogren noted, and students across a range of majors — including civil engineering, environmental engineering, construction engineering technology, mechanical engineering technology, even graphic design — are a good fit.

Curtis said he mentions the activity to anyone who will listen. “I learned a lot, and it’s something I really enjoyed,” he said. “It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Students who are interested in joining the team can contact [email protected] or [email protected]