Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Meet Concrete Canoe, the engineering club learning to make concrete float

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Photo courtesy of Vivian Reilly
Last year, NU Concrete Canoe competed in Duluth, Minnesota with the theme “Rock N’ Row.”

When McCormick junior Vivian Reilly attended McCormick’s organization fair her freshman year, one booth caught her eye: Concrete Canoe. 

“I saw this tank of water with floating cylinders of concrete, and I was like, ‘What is going on over there?’” she said. “And then I was hooked — this was just something totally different.” 

Two years later, Reilly is one of Canoe’s co-presidents. Over the course of a school year, the team concocts a concrete mixture light enough to float in water and uses it to construct a canoe. 

“You want to, first of all, design a canoe that’s as light and as strong as possible, ideally using the least amount of materials,” McCormick junior and Canoe member Julia Yazhari said. “You want it to be fast, but you also want it to be able to maneuver it properly.” 

Canoe is split into two teams: one that formulates the concrete mix and one that designs the mold which will shape the canoe, according to Yazhari, who leads the latter team. Members often split their time between the two teams, she said. 

The teams come together on casting day, a day-long endeavor in January, to make a large amount of concrete and pour it all into the mold. 

Aesthetic design also plays a role in the process, members said. After the concrete is given a few weeks to harden, the team paints the canoe according to a theme — this year, it’s “Paddlers of Olympus,” inspired by Greek mythology. 

McCormick junior and Canoe co-president Aimee Sze said she appreciates the close community Canoe fosters as a smaller club on campus. 

“There’s not tons of people (in Canoe), so you get to do hands-on stuff, like mixing and designing … right off the bat,” Sze said. “I felt like I was actually contributing, so that’s what kept me coming back.” 

The club’s efforts culminate in a three-day symposium hosted annually by the American Society of Civil Engineers in early April, in which Northwestern competes with teams from universities across the Western Great Lakes region. Teams are first scored in three technical categories: a written project proposal, a technical presentation and an evaluation of the final concrete canoe prototype. 

Last year, NU’s team placed third in both the project proposal and prototype categories, earning it a third place ranking overall for the first time since 2015. 

The teams then race their canoes to show off the speed and maneuverability of their boats. Members said they are both excited and nervous about the racing component of the competition this year.

“That’s the part I think that scares us the most,” Yazhari said. “Because we can design the canoe, but then racing is the tough part.” 

Last year’s race was canceled due to icy conditions. During the 2022 race, the team struggled to steer the canoe in a straight line and fell into the lake, members said. 

Sze said the club now has paddling practice built into its schedule. The team reserves the pool in the Norris Aquatics Center and practices using a canoe there. 

“I got to do that the past two years and I thought that was actually really fun, because there’s just something so interesting about taking a canoe into the pool at SPAC at 10 p.m.,” Sze said.

Overall, members said Canoe gives them an opportunity to hone their understanding of the chemical properties of concrete, the structural calculations that go into the design process and the project management skills necessary to keep the club running smoothly.

“Concrete is a really important material for civil engineers to be aware of because so many structures in society are made out of concrete,” Yazhari said. “So knowing how to make it with your own hands, how to design it, is pretty important.” 

Email: [email protected] 

X: @joyycee_li

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