“Ask any athlete and they’ll tell you, the best way to practice is to act like it’s the real thing.”
The University of Waterloo “Sleighlors” team was
one of 21 teams, who vied for top sled in the
student-run 2014 Great Northern Concrete Toboggan
Race in London, Ontario.
Mitch Soetaert (left), PCL Industrial module
manager and guest safety judge, shown with the
University of Alberta’s Moo of A team, which took
home seven awards from the 2014 GNCTR.
This insight was shared by Fraser Lord, sprint captain for University of Waterloo “Sleighlors,” one of 21 teams in the Great Northern Concrete Toboggan Race (GNCTR) held in London, Ontario, from January 29 to February 2, 2014.
Teams were challenged to design, construct, and race a toboggan with concrete running surfaces that weighs less than 300 pounds, holds five passengers, and, most importantly, is safe.
“The GNCTR puts students in a real-world design challenge with the expectation of achieving quality results at the end,” said Lord. “Innovating, troubleshooting, and working in teams are all skills you learn.”
On your mark, get set, go!
The event is hosted by a different engineering department in Canada every year. Western University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering took up the 2014 challenge, setting a record-breaking attendance of 466 engineering students from 21 colleges and universities across North America—on the 40th anniversary of this student-run competition.
As a first-time title sponsor of the competition, PCL participated in the technical exhibit (career fair), provided two technical judges, and presented the Best Performing Toboggan and People’s Choice awards at the closing dinner.
Mitch Soetaert, PCL Industrial module manager and guest safety judge, said race participants were required to exhibit the same attributes that PCL looks for in the field: total teamwork during the design, construction, and testing of a successful project that is performed safely.
“Judging was an opportunity to take what I do every day and apply it to something completely different. It was our responsibility to make sure the students could climb into these things and race down the hill without getting hurt,” added Soetaert.
The race is a quick hurtle down a snowy slope in a “king-of-the-hill” format judged by industry professionals who critique each team’s sled design, technical presentation, construction, and performance. Among the awards given were those for most original/innovative design, best concrete mix, fastest race time, best team spirit, and best overall team.
Mark Henderson, PCL Toronto project manager and guest technical judge, said it was incredible to see the level of innovation from the students. “With respect to the concrete mix design, we saw lightweight concrete that actually floated, mixes that incorporate recycled motor oil as a super-plasticizer, and bamboo for reinforcement. After reviewing the technical proposals presented by these teams, it is safe to say the world of concrete will look very different in the future.”
Coloring outside the lines
Peter Gong, PCL field engineer and University of Waterloo engineering graduate, said academia sometimes teaches students to “color within the lines,” or to follow very specific instructions and processes.
“Taking part in events such as the GNTCR forces participants to guide themselves through complex undertakings, with little to no hand-holding as is generally the norm in the workplace,” said Gong. “One of the most important skills students develop in these extracurricular endeavors is the ability to be more resourceful.”
For most teams, competition started more than six months in advance. Team members collaborated on the design and construction of a toboggan that would stand out from those of their competitors, with just as much attention paid to their theme and costumes. This year, teams such as Despicable Ski, Moo of A, and the Rolling Sledstones appeared on the leader board, making it a colorful challenge.
How it all comes together
PCL fills more than 500 co-op internships across Canada annually. The GNCTR sponsorship presented PCL’s various operating companies, which serve buildings, industrial and civil markets, with an opportunity to connect with future engineers regarding these available internships, some of which evolve into permanent positions.
Historically, PCL districts have supported local university teams in their bid to get to this highly anticipated engineering event. This year, PCL Toronto hosted the University of Waterloo’s Sleighlors, and PCL Calgary hosted the University of Calgary’s Sledgend of Zelda team.
“As you go through the entire process of building the toboggan, you see how rules turn into design and innovation, which leads to construction and troubleshooting, and finally to testing and implementation,” said Fraser. “Learning how one stage of the project impacts another is a vital and often expensive lesson for students to learn.”
For the Students, by the Students
The Great Northern Concrete Toboggan Race was originally conceived by the Alberta chapter of the American Concrete Institute (ACI) in 1972. In 1975, the GNCTR became―and remains to this day―a completely student-run competition open to teams around the world. In 2015 students will travel to the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia in Kelowna.