With Concrete Canoes and Gumdrop Domes, Engineers Show Their Stuff

Engineering ingenuity is showcased at UM during National Engineers Week.

By Maya Bell and Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (February 20, 2014) — For Deon LeCointe, this week’s annual National Engineers Week at the University of Miami was a joyous homecoming. The 2006 electrical and computer engineering grad was hyped to be back on campus Tuesday, showing off Sony’s 4K camcorder, laser projector and robotic pan, tilt, and zoom camera at E-Week’s Innovation Expo.

“This is the first job I’ve had since graduating and it’s been a great ride,” said LeCointe, a project manager for Sony Professional Solutions of America. “My professors told us, ‘We’re not teaching you to be engineers; we’re teaching you to solve problems.' And they were right: You can do anything with an engineering degree. Anything.”

That message is one the School of Engineering’s student Engineering Advisory Board is dead serious about, yet having plenty of fun, conveying throughout E-Week, which began a few days early with a Valentine’s Day “Fall in Love with Engineering” fair and closes this Sunday, after a 24-hour hackathon.

Sandwiched in between are a host of activities designed to showcase what engineers do for the world and lure prospective students, both on campus and in the community, who may never have given engineering a second thought. Among them: rapid-design competitions, where visiting high schoolers built cross bows from paint stirrers, straws, and rubber bands; tours of Florida Power and Light’s Turkey Point Nuclear Facility and flight simulators at the Pan Am International Flight Academy; exercises to assemble the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the highest load-bearing dome; and the ever-popular concrete canoe races.

“When most people think of concrete, they picture a sidewalk and wonder how something like that can float,” said Mackenzie Cerjan, secretary of the UM chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), whose members demonstrated their marvels of maritime ingenuity on Lake Osceola on Wednesday. Ten of them took turns navigating the M-305 and The Heat canoes.

As Cerjan explained, it’s the addition of foam-based aggregates to concrete, then the process of curing the mixture in a mold for almost a month that makes the vessels light and seaworthy. Both M-305 and The Heat, named for Miami’s NBA champions and sporting the team’s colors, have performed well at regional ASCE competitions, out-sprinting and out-maneuvering rival boats from other universities.

The students will soon unveil what they hope will be their best boat ever, a canoe now curing in a mold lined with aluminum flashing. They will find out at an ASCE conference at the University of South Florida March 27-29 whether the smoother surface created by the flashing will produce a faster boat.

Not far from the canoe races, other civil engineering students in the UC breezeway showcased a design project of quite a different nature: miniature geodesic domes built with toothpicks and gumdrops.

“Spatial perception is difficult for some people to grasp,” said graduate student Kimberley MacDonald, a member of the civil engineering honor society Chi Epsilon. “Engineers look at plans in two-dimensional formats, but we build three-dimensional structures. Activities like this help us make the connection between what we see on paper and reality.”

Showcasing engineering realities and dispelling the misconceptions is what Athena Jones, president of the Engineering Advisory Board, said E-Week is all about. “Engineering is considered to be a stealth major,’’ she said, as she helped set up tables at the Innovation Expo, which in addition to Sony and General Electrics, featured engineering wonders from the military and world of research. “It’s not sexy like medicine, but almost everything you see or hear has been engineered. Yet a lot of people still assume an engineer is the guy putting coal on the train.”

And certainly not the gal. But Jones quickly and proudly notes that women make up about 30 percent of UM’s engineering students, about double the national average. But not content to rest on that laurel, E-Week is hosting its annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day on Thursday, when 140 girls from nine area high schools are visiting campus to learn firsthand about the awesomeness of – and opportunities – in engineering.

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