Honors senior Sean Purdue steers Concrete Canoe team to regional win

For the first time in more than a decade, UMKC engineering students designed and constructed a unique water vessel for the annual Concrete Canoe Competition sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Led by Honors senior Sean Purdue, a civil engineering major, the UMKC team won its regional competition, hosted by Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, in April.

“The idea of making a canoe out of concrete is absurd, but that absurdity is what makes it so fun. You have to put your head together with your team and make a boat out of a really unsuitable material, so you’re forced to think outside of the box,” Sean said.

Sean is president of the UMKC student chapter of ASCE and was captain and project manager of the UMKC canoe team of fifteen students. He says the team tried to compensate for its lack of recent experience in the competition by keeping things simple and communicating effectively.

Of course, it is not simple to make and race a concrete canoe, but enabling students to test their skills in concrete mix designs and project management is the goal of the competition that began in 1988 and is known as the “America’s Cup of Civil Engineering.”

Sean said there were plenty of challenges. “Lack of experience made duration and cost estimating nearly impossible. I frequently underestimated how long construction tasks would take, which meant a lot of last-minute scrambling to finish things. Unifying the writing of the technical report was also a challenge, since multiple people contributed to it. We also did not do a good job with quality control (ensuring that construction matches design). Managing members who are busy with school, work, and other extracurriculars was challenging as well.”

Bad weather prevented the UMKC team from racing its canoe at the regional competition, where it took first place for the “Blue Phoenix,” which is 238 inches long, 26 inches wide, 15 inches deep, and weighed 395 pounds. Despite the win, the UMKC team did not participate in the national Concrete Canoe competition because it did not meet other ASCE requirements unrelated to the canoe project.

Sean aims to help the UMKC team repeat its regional win and qualify for the national competition next year.

Dr. John T. Kevern, chairperson of the UMKC Department of Civil & Mechanical Engineering and faculty advisor to the Concrete Canoe team, praised Sean’s leadership on the project.

“UMKC hasn’t had a concrete canoe since the mid-2000’s and as such, had no institutional knowledge for the Blue Phoenix. Sean successfully organized all aspects of the team from scratch—canoe design, mold construction, concrete design, paddling, report writing, presentations, and especially fund raising. Under normal circumstances this is a significant bit of extra work, but to do it without anyone to ask, ‘What did you do last time?’ is huge, plus they won the regional competition. It’s safe to say that without Sean’s leadership it would have been a different outcome,” Dr. Kevern said.