Dordt College News

Concrete canoe gets ready for contest

May 18, 2011

Signs in the science building in early February announced “Pour Day,” inviting others to come and help.

It was a big day for the 25 members of the Dordt College engineering department’s concrete canoe team.

Some members of the team worked into the wee hours of the morning to make sure everything was ready, others were up into the wee hours of the next morning, making sure everything was accomplished.

The concrete canoe project isn’t just a nice assignment. Five men and five women will paddle the canoe in April at the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) annual Midwest regional concrete canoe competition in Fargo, North Dakota.

Engineering Professor Justin Vander Werff admits that neither he nor the team was fully aware of all of the pieces that had to come together to have a successful entry in the competition. Nevertheless, the students, who have been meeting weekly since September, are making great progress—even if they have scaled back their expectations just a bit. Early on, they set up committees to manage all of the details that needed to be done.

Each school’s team must come up with its own concrete “mix” that will allow the canoe to float and meet weight and strength requirements for the competition. This year, teams are required to use at least 25 percent recycled materials in the mix.

“We have at least 25 percent recycled content,” says Nathanael Couperus, a junior engineering major who is captain of the team. He says the team would have explored using recycled materials even if it hadn’t been a requirement because of the way they think about using creation’s resources.

The Mix Design crew decided which materials to use in the mix, as well as what amounts to use for optimum strength and lightness. Dordt’s team used crushed porcelain (toilets), crushed glass, (from windows), and shredded plastic (from recycled containers). The team spent hours calculating and then testing recipes by pouring samples.

Other crews:

This is the first year Dordt engineering students are entering the competition, and the other Iowa teams—from Iowa State University and the University of Iowa (the only other accredited engineering programs in the state) have welcomed them enthusiastically and given them an amazing amount of assistance, says Vander Werff. He smiles and adds that Dordt’s participation actually could benefit those teams since it pushes the number of teams in the region to ten, enabling two teams instead of one to move on to the national competition in June.  The Iowa teams along with teams from Minnesota, Western Wisconsin, South Dakota, and North Dakota will face off on April 29 and 30.

Concrete canoe teams not only design, build, and race their canoes, they also present and defend their design in a paper and poster presentation given at the regional student conference held the same weekend. Their scores are based on:

“Part of what’s so good about the competition is the interaction that our students have with students from other schools,” says Vander Werff. “It not only gives them the sense that what they are doing technically is on par with the big state universities, but also that the perspective on technology and design that they are developing makes a difference.”

“The competition gives us a way to show others who we are and how we do engineering at Dordt,” says Couperus.

“Pour Day” marked a milestone for the whole team but especially for some of the committees. The mix was ready, the form was built. The canoe was created. Attention then moved to the paper and presentation for the conference. It’s been a lot of work, but well worth it, says Couperus. He and his teammates knew that the first year of competition would be labor intensive—something they’ve had to balance carefully as students in a major already renowned for its work load.

Nevertheless, they’re enthusiastic about what they’ve learned about designing and building, about working together as a team, and about managing a big project.

“It’s created an amazingly interactive atmosphere in the engineering department,” says Couperus. Freshmen to seniors are all working together, encouraging one another, learning together, and having fun.

For sophomore engineering major Danielle DeBoer, working as a team has been the best part. The four women on the team—two freshmen, one sophomore, and one senior—have become especially close. They know they’ll all be paddling in April because they’re all needed to balance the team by gender.

“You can do all the problem sets you want, but there’s nothing like actually working on a project and having to fix random mishaps that always happen,” DeBoer adds.  “It’s really helped me learn what it takes to run a project. Communication and attention to detail has to be strong all the time or things just get forgotten. There have been many situations in which to apply common sense and quick thinking.”

Even though they’re still steeped in work preparing for the April competition, they’re already thinking about next year—and how much easier it will be to have a year of experience under their belts and know they have already designed and built one finished canoe.

The concrete canoe team will give a campus presentation of their work on April 14 at 7 p.m. You can also check out photos of the team’s progress on their website at

The competition

The ASCE National Concrete Canoe Competition (NCCC) is a mentally and physically challenging competition that allows students to apply what they are learning in the classroom and develop team and project management skills they will need in their careers, according the event’s website. It challenges students’ knowledge, creativity, and stamina, while it showcases the versatility and durability of concrete as a building material.

By the numbers

The canoe has a density of 64.64lb/ft^3 and a theoretical weight of 206lb. The concrete needs to have a wet density between 55-70 lb/ft3. Currently, it has a theoretical density of 64.64 lb/ft3. A total amount of 400 lb/yd3 for hydraulic cement can be used, and our mix had 399.26 lb/yd3. The total mass for hydraulic cement could be between 30-50% of the total cementitious materials used, and we used 21.46%. Aggregates had to be a minimum of 25% for the entire mix, and we used 30.51%.  Sustainable aggregates had to constitute a minimum of 50% for the total aggregate weight, and our mix used 88.9%.


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