Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
The beach at Boulder Reservoir Saturday morning was lined with engineering students, college professors — and a series of concrete canoes.
The boat race concluded the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2019 Rocky Mountain Regional Student Conference — an event centered on concrete and civil engineering.
“This is an opportunity for the engineers to get together and get their geek on,” said Alex Gonzales, a retired engineer from New Mexico who has judged the competition since 2014. “It involves each university submitting a report.
“Then there’s a presentation… [and] a display,” before “the final day of the competition when they actually get to race the canoes.”
“I love this event, man,” said Joaquin Martinez, a junior studying engineering at the University of New Mexico. “It’s a team-building effort. For months, we put together plans to make this concrete canoe. We learn how to problem solve and … work as a team.
“That’s what we’re going to be doing in real life,” he said. “Working with a lot of different people.”
The competition is run by the American Society of Civil Engineers — a professional society — in conjunction with the student wing of that organization.
Becki Atadero, who teaches civil engineering at Colorado State University, defined it as designing “infrastructure to make our society work.” She said it can include topics as varied as structural engineering, environmental studies and geology.
To an unskilled eye, the boats may seem to vary more in aesthetics than design. But any student involved with the build process could explain otherwise.
“There’s actually a lot of technical aspects that go into this,” said Jamie Smith, a senior at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, who has participated in the event since her freshman year.
“A lot of schools try to vary their shapes,” she said, “but schools that go to nationals tend to not change their shapes very much.” Smith said that a proven form which a team’s paddlers are accustomed to generally works the best.
“The next component that can be very different between schools is what materials you’re using within the concrete,” she said.
“Yes, it is water displacement when you design the canoe and the hull shape,” she said, “but the majority of it is the weight of the canoe and how fast you’re going to be able to paddle.
“It comes down to our mix. We want to make it lighter than water, because the heavier the canoe,” Smith said, “the harder it is to move.”
“They’re trying to use specialty mixes and specialty aggregates to make a concrete mix that’s lighter than water,” Atadero said.
“Concrete is one of the most common civil engineering materials,” she said, “so they’re just taking it and having fun with it.
“They’ll use glass microspheres, Styrofoam and other exotic materials,” Gonzales explained.
“Some of these schools are so good,” he said, “that they’ll take a block of concrete they cast and it’ll float on water.”
The competition can also provide a much-needed break for students who are often involved in the most rigorous undergraduate coursework available at their respective universities.
It also brings together engineering students, professors and professionals from across the inland West.
“The farthest north school is the South Dakota School of Mines,” Gonzales said, “and the [southernmost] school is New Mexico State.”
Although Smith said students are generally fully occupied by the competition itself, Martinez said he cherished the opportunity to meet people from other schools.
Atadero also described the event as an important networking opportunity.
“I did this when I was a student, and it is one of the things I remember the most about being in school,” said Atadero, who was an undergraduate at CSU. “I think it’s a great way for them to get to know other people in their major.
“Engineers have a reputation for being nerds who are studying all the time,” she said.
“This is a chance for them to go be a little physical — to come out to the lake here on a nice day and cheer.”