Freshmen Engineering Students Work Together to Build a Cardboard Canoe

by Chris Karenbauer

They were nervous for this race. Although they spent several hours building their canoe, they still did not feel ready.

Two freshmen Engineer students knelt in their canoe. Jake Brucken was in front, and Alex Heinrich in the back. They had a slow start. Team 3 rowed ahead of them. Jake and Alex continued to row. Slowly but surely, they would reach the shore.

They rowed past the first set of buoys. Then the next. Then the next. About halfway to the finish line, their canoe began to fall apart on them. But they continued to row. They passed their opponents at some point during the race. Yet they continued to row. They passed more sets of buoys. They continued to row. Their canoe sank further into the water. They continued to row.

Finally they reached the shore. Jake and Alex rolled into the water and dragged their canoe onto the shore. It had absorbed so much water. They stumbled onto the shore and across the finish line.

Every year the freshmen Engineering students build canoes. The only materials they are allowed to use are 40 feet of cardboard and a roll of packaging tape.

“It’s their first team experience of working together to try to accomplish something in a design approach,” said Dr. Bob Chaznov, the Dean of the School of Engineering and Computer Science. “They are learning the basics of modeling from basic principles—mathematics and physics. And then getting together and getting creative on how they want to solve a problem.”

The canoe race takes place during homecoming weekend at Cedarville University. Students and alumni sit at the edge of Cedar Lake to watch the engineers race each other to the finish line.

The crowd of people during homecoming weekend, ready to watch the race.

People delight in watching the engineers race across Cedar Lake. But it is extremely stressful for the engineers. The race is graded. If they sink, their grades sink along with them.

Many stressful hours go into building a canoe out of cardboard. The engineers spend copious amounts of time planning and constructing their canoes.

Remember this is the engineers’ first year in college, and a good chunk of their grade depends on this race. They can only rely on their advisors, careful calculations and a lot of prayer.

The members of Team 4, Jake Brucken, Alex Heinrich, Ben Kinard and Bryce York, call themselves “Late 4 Work.” They began building their canoe about two weeks before the race. Even though they gave themselves two weeks to build their canoe, they still feel the anxiety of whether they will pass or fail.

Senior Mechanical Engineering student and their advisor Chad Sanderson said that even if they build a sturdy canoe, their ability to row can be the reason they fail.

How does “Late 4 Work,” a group of freshmen who never had an engineering class, build their canoe with cardboard and a roll of tape?

The simple answer: good planning and preparation.

“Late 4 Work” spent about 15 hours planning what they wanted their canoe to look like. But that does not account for their individual amount of time they put into making their calculations or rolling their support pieces.

Ben said, “Alex took over the leadership role of directing people. He had a great vision of what the canoe should look like and how to incorporate all the different features we wanted to. Bryce did all the calculations. Jake was really good at rolling the supports. I came up with the initial design itself. I also figured out how to measure everything and cut the pieces with the one sheet of cardboard we had. I think together, we came up with a pretty good design.”

During the design stage, “Late 4 Work” has to consider the sink depth of their canoe and how to prevent their canoe from twisting or bending. Alex and Jake are the rowers. Together they weigh around 375 pounds. Compared to some of the other teams, they have more weight in their canoe.

“Late 4 Work” team building the supports.

With their added weight, the canoe’s sink depth is about six inches. To accommodate their weight, “Late 4 Work” focused on the rigidity of their frame and made the sides of their canoe higher–about 15 inches high. To prevent twisting and bending, “Late 4 Work” used their extra cardboard as supports to make their canoe as strong as they possibly could.

“One of the best pieces of advice I could give in the design is that a strong boat is better than an aerodynamic boat,” said Jake. “You want to make sure your boat is very strong and rigid. If we have it super strong, we could still end up beating someone who is super aerodynamic. But their boat is super weak.”

Once they come up with a design idea and all the calculations for their pieces, “Late 4 Work” has to cut out their pieces and roll the cardboard for the frame

“Late 4 Work” uses a copper pole with a slit to roll their cardboard. They insert the cardboard into the slit and roll it around the pole. This strategy makes the cardboard supports tighter and sturdier.

Cardboard and tape are all they had to work with.

Jake explained that because he and Heinrich weigh more, it is better to have a more rigid canoe than a more fluid one. Fluidity is useless if the canoe cannot support the rowers as they try to make it across the lake.

Once they have all their pieces rolled, “Late 4 Work” begins to structure the frame of their canoe. They have one roll of packaging tape for their entire canoe. They have to figure out how to conserve their tape while also using enough to keep the canoe sturdy.

Chad says that since “Late 4 Work” planned ahead well, they managed to have more than enough tape for the whole frame, the outer skin and some left over to reinforce the canoe.

This is the basic idea on how the freshmen engineering students build their canoes. But building is only part of the project. They still have to race across Cedar Lake without sinking.

Chad said that “Late 4 Work” can have the strongest canoe, but whether they pass or fail depends on the rowers. Luckily “Late 4 Work” has experienced rowers with Alex as a former Eagle Scout and Jake growing up canoeing.

Unfortunately Chad has seen many teams with great canoes, yet they sank because they did not have any experienced rowers. Chad, however, has high hopes for this year’s “Late 4 Work.”

He said that they had good planning and preparation to fix mistakes early on. They also put in the time and effort to build the best canoe they would with the little experience they had. Chad also said that the idea to cut a slit in the pipe was an excellent idea because it makes the frame a lot sturdier. It is something he has never even thought of.

The cardboard canoe race is exciting to watch and stressful to participate in, but it is one of the highlights of Homecoming weekend at Cedarville University.

“Late 4 Work” team racing against the competition.

The freshmen Engineering students put in a lot of time and effort to build their canoes. They also get under a lot of stress to achieve a good grade in their class. But they also have a lot of fun building the canoe.

“Just take initiative,” said Alex. “Really try to have fun with this, even though it’s worth a lot of your grade. It’s a really cool opportunity that I think gets overlooked a lot because it’s worth so much of our grade for Engineering Profession. And I think that we can really learn a lot from this project, like strengths and weaknesses that we all have. Take initiative. Really try to dig deep. And try to have fun.”

Chris Karenbauer is a junior Journalism major and the Campus News Editor for Cedars. She enjoys reading and writing, hanging out with friends and jamming out.

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