UNLV Students Working to Build Concrete Canoe

By: Richard Lake AP
By: Richard Lake AP

LAS VEGAS (AP) - It is a canoe, precisely 20 feet long, precisely 30 inches wide. It was engineered to weigh as little as possible, a trim 250 pounds.

It is made of concrete. It has floated. It will soon compete in a race. These facts create a paradox: buoyant concrete.

The canoe is quite nice looking, with a glass mosaic, a gleaming paint job and a nickname tagged on its side. It's the result of nearly a year of hard work.

"I think she's amazing," said Tiffany Hearn, the captain of the canoe-building team.

Hearn, 22, is a senior majoring in engineering at UNLV. She is smart and dedicated. She already has a job lined up after graduation and is applying to graduate school too.

Since May, she has been leading a seven-member team of other UNLV engineering students in their efforts to build a fully functional canoe entirely out of concrete.

Engineering students at UNLV and all over the country do this every year. They enter competitions. A national champion is declared. (It was the University of Nevada, Reno, last year).

UNLV has never made it past the regional competition. Maybe it will this year. Maybe it won't.

That's not the point.

"This is a big project that takes months to complete. They have to be able to work as a team," said Bill Culbreth, an associate
dean in UNLV's college of engineering. "Most engineering projects will work that way."

So it is that the national concrete canoe competition is more than a boat-building contest.

It's a metaphor for the real world - where there is not nor will there ever be a market for boats made of sand, glue and water.

Noe Santos, the team member most responsible for figuring out how to make this particular blend of concrete, doesn't even plan on working in that area after he graduates in May. He'll be doing research on solar cells.

In the meantime, he and the rest of the team have spent at least 40 hours every week since May working on this canoe.

"No Christmas vacation. No Valentine's. No anything," Hearn said.

Santos, 21, explained that you can't use just any old concrete to make a canoe that actually works. The competition's rules say the canoe must float back to the surface after being submerged. UNLV has never done well on that test.

The competition also requires the presentation of technical papers. It features judges evaluating the canoe's look. It features races in actual bodies of water.

Judges award each team points for aesthetics, responses to questions and the technical paper. They combine points with a team's finish in a variety of races - sprints and slaloms - to determine the overall winner.

In the past, UNLV's teams have blended the concrete with rocks. They've had hits and misses, a couple of times suffering competition-ending catastrophic failures; the boats broke in half.

But not this year, the team members say.

First, the thing is much prettier than canoes past. It's got a UNLV mosaic on the bottom, and the name Kiss Our Glass on the side.

It's nearly as smooth as plastic; Hearn, who co-captained the team last year, said team members spent two weeks sanding this year's model.

They stained it with an environmentally friendly product (they'll get more points for using "sustainable" products in their design). The stain wasn't available in red, UNLV's color, so it's black and blue and white.

"I think we're gorgeous as far as aesthetics goes," Hearn said. "Our technical paper is dead on."

The team took their boat out to a man-made lake at Desert Shores on March 14. They rowed in it. They sank it. It came right back up.

To work on their speed, team members have been practicing twice a week in a traditional fiberglass canoe. They're getting pretty fast.

All of this has Hearn thinking they might finish in the regional competition's top five, set for April 4 in Hawaii.

About 20 teams are competing; the top three go to the nationals, set for June in Alabama.

The secret to the team's confidence is the concrete, which weighs in at 54 pounds per cubic foot, about 8 pounds lighter than water.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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