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April 21, 2013

Floating an idea: Pitt-Johnstown students paddle concrete canoe

JOHNSTOWN — UPJ Civil Engineering associate professor Brian L. Houston hears the same thing every year.

Skeptics hear about concrete canoe racing and wonder if the winner is the first one to the lake’s bottom.

“People don’t believe me,” said Houston, the students’ adviser. “But, yes, concrete can float.”

Houston’s student engineers, as well as fellow students from four other colleges, proved it for him on the Quemahoning Reservoir on Sunday during the American Society of Civil Engineers’ annual Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference.

Students paddled 220-pound concrete canoes across the lake, steering them around pylons for a chance to earn a shot at a national prize, what the ASCE has dubbed “America’s Cup” for student engineers.

“You’ve got to find the perfect balance,” said UPJ junior Mike Imgrund. “It’s got to be strong enough to hold your paddlers but light enough to float.”

Behind him, classmates Stephanie Buncich and Ashley Babik were celebrating a strong finish in a three-team sprint.

“We made one boat. It took us months to design and build,” said Imgrund, of Bedford, gesturing to the sleek painted craft behind him.

The day started with UPJ, Drexel, Penn State, University of Maryland and U.S. Naval Academy students submerging their crafts into the Que – a test they had to pass to be able to board them later for races.

“They have to rise back up to the surface – and all of them did,” said Houston.

Engineering students from several of the schools, UPJ included, said they spent most of two semesters making it happen.

One secret: Concrete with tiny air-filled glass bubbles. It essentially makes the concrete half-filled with air instead of sand or gravel like the stuff in sidewalks, Houston said.

“It’s pretty high-tech stuff,” he added.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ website, asce.org, the sport dates back to the 1960s, but that schools have been facing off regionally for a chance at a national event in Illinois since 1988.

The regional competition, which also included small-scale steel bridge building, was part of a two-day event at Summer’s Best Two Weeks campground.  

The area has hosted regional championships twice before – most recently in 2006, Houston said.

This year’s event featured hundreds of students from

14 schools across three states.

Winners will be listed in Tuesday’s Tribune-Democrat.

Students competing had a long list of strict requirements for their bridge’s length and height – and had to fit the materials in a 3 foot box, said Chris Bolich, a UPJ junior.

Houston said the competition is just part of the experience, saying the process teaches valuable, hands-on lessons students can take with them as they pursue careers in the field.

“This shows how much they can achieve on their own,” he added.

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