Shirtless and in running shorts, Jackson Arnold stood waist-deep in Lake Chickamauga. The air temperature was 57 degrees, the same temperature as the water.
“Just a little bit,” he said, “but there are methods of warming up.”
One of those was paddling a 708-pound canoe made of concrete, which Arnold, a civil engineering senior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, would do in a few minutes.
“I never would think concrete would’ve floated, but here we are,” said Arnold, who graduated from Bearden High School in Knoxville.
Along with 14 other universities, UTC students competed on Friday, March 31, in the Concrete Canoe competition, held in Chester Frost Park—about 30 minutes north of Chattanooga.
The canoe races were one of more than 20 events scheduled at the American Society of Civil Engineers Mid-South Student Symposium, hosted by UTC for the first time since 2015.
Held from March 30 through April 1, the symposium also included a competition to construct a 24-foot bridge over a “river” whose banks were marked by strips of tape on the floor; building a wall from 150 pounds of sand within a matter of minutes; designing solutions to visibility issues at several Chattanooga intersections; and socializing events for members of each university to meet one another.
Chris Frishcosy, director of labs for the UTC Department of Civil Engineering and one of the symposium organizers, said the networking and personal contacts students make during the event is one of its key takeaways.
“If there’s one thing they leave with, I think that they’ll say UTC had a great social record,” he said.
National finals for the concrete canoe race are scheduled for June 10-13 at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. In the Chattanooga races, UTC came in second place behind Lipscomb University. UT Knoxville took third place.
Finals for the bridge-building competition are set for June 2-3 at the University of California San Diego. Harding University won first place in Chattanooga, Christian Brothers University was second and Vanderbilt University was third.
The Concrete Canoe competition included all-female, all-male and coed teams. At Chester Frost Park, each school gave distinctive names for its canoe, such as “Medusa’s Gaze” from Christian Brothers; “Poseidon” from Vanderbilt; “Raging Red Wolves” from Arkansas State University; and “The Dreamboat” from Lipscomb.
Naturally, the UTC canoe was named “Mocs Express” which, in the Female Slalom race, held two students dressed as hammerhead sharks.
Although canoes were tested at the various schools where they were made, some failed once they hit the water. Two sunk; one broke in half; one developed a serious leak.
Members of the UTC bridge-building team also were at Chester Frost Park on March 31, constructing their bridge—girders, struts and other pieces painted blue and gold—on a parking lot. They and several other university teams gave judges a chance to look at their bridges with an eye on aesthetics.
Later that day, the teams took their bridges completely apart. They hauled them down to the Chattanooga Convention Center, where they would rebuild them on Saturday, April 1, and let judges determine whether the bridges fit the precise specifications demanded by the competition.
UTC hadn’t competed in the bridge-building competition since 2019, so there was extra pressure on the team to, at the very least, not be disqualified for tiny mistakes.
David Madrid, a senior in civil engineering at UTC and graduate of Springfield (Tennessee) High School, said the team began designing the bridge about eight months ago. They ran into technical problems when they ran tests a few weeks ago to see if their measurements were correct. Sometimes they weren’t.
“It was definitely frustrating, but we just came to terms on it,” he said. “We were actually thinking of calling it quits and thinking of just participating in the aesthetics, but we were, ‘No, we’ve put in all this work so far, we might as well just try to see it through the best we can.’
“As long as we don’t get disqualified, that’s a win for us, considering all the adversity we faced.”
No worries; the UTC team left happy. Although they didn’t place in the top three, their bridge met the required specifications.