SOUTHFIELD—Ordinarily, a fourth-place finish in a race is nothing to celebrate. You’re off the podium. You don’t get a medal.
But for Lawrence Technological University’s team in this year’s American Society of Civil Engineers concrete canoe competition, fourth place in the race—heck, even just finishing the race—was an achievement right out of the latest LTU advertising campaign, “Be Curious. Make Magic.”
In the competition, university teams build canoes out of ultralight, advanced formulations of the world’s most popular building material, concrete. To be allowed in competition, the canoe must still float even after being filled with water—an event called the swamp test—meaning the concrete formulation must be lighter than water. Then the students who designed and built the canoes race them around a course laid out on a lake.
LTU poured its concrete formulation into a canoe form five weeks before the event, since concrete generally takes 28 days to cure fully.
But when the team removed the forms from the canoe about a week before the competition, on March 22, disaster struck. As concrete canoe team faculty advisor Nishantha Bandara, associate professor of civil and architectural engineering put it, “it broke into pieces.” Roger Harrison, an LTU project engineer who worked closely with the team, explained that two layers of concrete in the canoe had failed to bond.
Team co-captain Ella Smith, a sophomore civil engineering major from Frankenmuth who is also on the LTU women’s golf team, said the team initially hoped the canoe could be repaired. But by the next day, she said, “it was completely gone.” Smith said she went to her next class stunned, and that night “I called my mom and basically cried about it. I was like, there’s no possible way we’re showing up to competition with a canoe. It’s completely broken and we’re only a week away, so we’re just going to give our presentation.”
But the next day, Smith said, “a huge email chain” started, where the team, other LTU engineering students, and faculty members decided to try to make new forms and pour a new batch of concrete. That took place Saturday, March 25, six days before competition. As Harrison put it, “suddenly the team of students came together to complete the impossible mission.”
Team co-captain John Schmitz, a junior civil engineering major from Eastpointe, said Smith “was on top of getting the new rigid foam boards cut so that we could pour a new canoe. After the initial shock she handled the situation very well. Even though she couldn’t participate in pour day due to a golf outing, she made sure that we were in as good of a position as we could be.”
Schmitz said members of the LTU Steel Bridge competition team–another ASCE competition, of which Schmitz is also captain–were instrumental in the second, emergency concrete pour. “On pour day the steel bridge team and I showed up at 7 a.m. to finish sanding the canoe mold,” Schmitz said. “We completely wrapped up the project at 8 p.m., a typical pour day. I was shocked that students who weren’t on the team were willing to give up their Saturday to help get this done.”
Then came the competition, just six days later. “The morning of the competition Roger, Ella, and I showed up at 6:30 a.m.,” Schmitz said. “Ella got straight to work setting up the display while Roger and I began removing the mold from the canoe. The team got some pretty weird looks as other schools saw that we were taking our mold out with the competition hours away.”
Miraculously, Harrison said, the canoe emerged from its mold “in almost perfect condition.” Said Smith: “I was baffled, in all honesty. I thought, how did it work this time?”
Then, equally miraculously, the canoe passed the swamp test. And then, the LTU paddlers got to work. LTU eventually finished fourth in the women’s race and fifth in the men’s race, for a fourth place combined race finish.
“I’m still shocked that it actually worked out,” Smith said.
Harrison called the team’s comeback “truly extraordinary and special. I am indeed very proud of each and every one of these students and all of the people that contributed. The level of learning and leadership our students experienced is off the charts.”
The steel bridge team’s contribution was repaid when Smith joined them for their competition after a team member dropped out at the last minute.
“Overall this year demonstrated how tightly knit the LTU civil engineering students are,” Schmitz said. “With the small classes you make some good friends and when you have a catastrophic failure days, or hours, before a big event, you always have someone to call on who will back you up no questions asked.”
Lawrence Technological University, www.ltu.edu, is one of only 13 private, technological, comprehensive doctoral universities in the United States. Located in Southfield, Mich., LTU was founded in 1932, and offers more than 100 programs through its Colleges of Architecture and Design, Arts and Sciences, Business and Information Technology, and Engineering. PayScale lists Lawrence Tech among the nation’s top 11 percent of universities for alumni salaries. Forbes and The Wall Street Journal rank LTU among the nation’s top 10 percent. U.S. News and World Report lists it in the top tier of best in the Midwest colleges. Students benefit from small class sizes and a real-world, hands-on, “theory and practice” education with an emphasis on leadership. Activities on Lawrence Tech’s 107-acre campus include more than 60 student organizations and NAIA varsity sports.