Although I don't speak for most of my faculty colleagues, I'm an advocate of student competitions such as the National Concrete Canoe Competition and the National Student Steel Bridge Competition. In each, student teams compete to build the fastest, sturdiest concrete canoes and the strongest, most efficient models of steel bridges. The participants gain valuable hands-on experience, but unfortunately they do not receive enough support. Too few faculty will advise a team, or organize a course that touches on either of these competitions in a meaningful way.

SINKS? Many faculty see such mentorship roles as time sinks with nominal value to the pursuit of tenure or the building of a research program. Likewise, few registered engineers will take the time to mentor at a local college. But almost everyone agrees that civil engineering education is nearing a crisis.

Industry is complaining that new graduates are unprepared for professional practice, while fiscally squeezed state legislatures are cutting back on baccalaureate programs, so much that credit requirements for the bachelor's in civil are down to historic lows. At the same time, the need to cover ever-more science, mathematics and engineering is pushing practical experience out of the curriculum–and pushing out bored students. Exit interviews reveal that most students don't leave civil engineering because the classes are too difficult, but because the classes offer little in the way of creative and practical challenges.

Not so with the concrete canoe competition co-sponsored by Master Builders Inc., and ASCE; and the steel bridge competition cosponsored by the American Institute of Steel Construction and ASCE. Each year, these activities offer students creative and exciting engineering challenges.

Together, these contests involve 40 regionals in which approximately 4,000 students participate. For the first time, both competitions culminated at a national student conference, held at my school, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, from June 21-24.

I started working with student competitions in 1990. Trust me when I say that they involve a great deal of planning and sweat equity. The students work extremely hard at designing and constructing their canoes and bridges. But they learn some tough project lessons: that complications inevitably arise to challenge even the best-laid plans, and that being a leader means making yourself responsible for others' performances.

LEADERS. Time and again, I've seen students who helped direct the competitions emerge as leaders in industry. They're the ones with enhanced team awareness and sensitivity; they're the ones chairing committees in ASCE and other professional societies; they're the ones moving up in the ranks of their organizations. No, they weren't necessarily the top students as measured by grades. But they were the ones who learned the value of hard work, persistence, goal setting, effective communication and teamwork. Although these skills are essential to successful engineering, they are not generally imparted by most civil engineering curricula.

At UW-Madison, we're trying hard to set an example. Since 1996, our students have gone to the concrete canoe finals each year and placed as high as sixth and no lower than fourteenth. Many of our team members have stayed in touch long after they graduated. UW concrete canoe "alumni" meet regularly at competitions and homecoming, and network about professional issues on the Web.

Other programs are setting good examples, too. Since 1996, Clemson University has won the national canoe competition twice while the University of Alabama, Huntsville, has won three times. These established programs have a commitment to excellence that would not be possible without continued departmental and industry support.

I've observed that the stronger the faculty and industry mentoring, the better the student performance. Sponsors can help with succession planning and in passing on lessons learned. Industry mentors can lend technical help with concrete-mix design or steel construction, and can critique student designs and review technical papers and oral presentations. Industry can help offset the costs of supplies and travel, too. Even with six students to a room, the costs of attending a competition add up fast, particularly when a school such as mine brings 60 students to a competition.

Students need frequent contact with faculty and industry practitioners in these contests. And a little guidance at the right time can prevent a team from floundering at the outset of a new competition year. Before the fall semester starts, contact your local ASCE student chapter to find out how you can help students in your community embark on an exciting, meaningful and practical adventure.

Jeffrey S. Russell is the chairman of the
Construction Engineering & Management Program
in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering
at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
He may be e-mailed at russell@engr.wisc.edu

urmudgeons see just fun and games at student-run concrete canoe and steel bridge contests. You often hear criticism that these annual competitions distract faculty and students from serious academic pursuits. But I believe that any structured activities that help students develop a "hands-on" feel for modern materials, design processes and construction practices are as important as any course that develops an understanding of underlying physical laws and design principles. In many ways, practical experience may be even more valuable to engineering practice.