Every year, a University of Maryland student engineering group takes on the unlikely challenge of building a functional canoe entirely of the heavyweight material used in bridges and buildings: concrete.  

That’s the point of the yearly American Society of Civil Engineers National Concrete Canoe Competition, where college students from around the country race the vessels that they designed and built with custom mixes. As they try to qualify for next year’s showdown, the Maryland team will have the advantage of a new group of cutting-edge laboratories in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) aimed at improving students' ability to test infrastructure materials for research.Soils testing

The $4.9 million Whiting-Turner Infrastructure Engineering Laboratories, built with help from a major gift from the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and 17 other organizations and alumni of the A. James Clark School of Engineering, opened last week. They promise to significantly enhance research and education possibilities with the latest equipment and software to understand the behaviors of materials such as steel, asphalt and soil composites.

“Hands-on education is still critically important, even in today’s high-tech world, for understanding what our classroom education means in the real world,” Timothy Regan, Whiting-Turner president and CEO, said during the Sept. 17 opening of the labs. “All of us at Whiting-Turner are very proud of our history of collaboration both with the University of Maryland and the Clark School of Engineering, and we are looking forward to much more history together as the university continues to produce generations of outstanding engineers.”

That partnership with Whiting-Turner, CEE’s largest benefactor, also includes the twice-per-semester Whiting-Turner Business & Entrepreneurial Lecture, which will take place at 5 p.m. today, featuring Ken Lee, founder and CEO of VanGogh Imaging.

Civil engineering is a “tactile field,” said Charles Schwartz, CEE professor and chair. For students to be successful, they need direct interaction with the materials, testing techniques and instrumentation used in infrastructure design, construction and performance monitoring.

Ahmet Aydilek, a CEE professor, said that since the renovation, not only is there more lab equipment for students to use, but the new additions are up-to-date.

“This state-of-the-art equipment is fully instrumented, automated and easy to use,” said Aydilek. “As a result of running tests and collecting and interpreting data, they learn how to write engineering reports, which is helpful for their future.”

The department will host two engineering courses in the labs, where students will learn techniques for testing and monitoring infrastructure, including bridges and buildings, along with extracurricular research.

John Walsh ’21, a UMD Concrete Canoe Team project manager, said the new testing equipment will result in fewer faulty batches of concrete, making fabrication of the boat quicker and less wasteful.

“If there's any machine error in that one test we have… we’d have to make an entire batch again,” said Walsh. “So by having the equipment be more accurate and more consistent, then we’re able to compensate for that very small sample size and improve the quality of our data. … Having the labs will really affect every category that’s judged either implicitly or explicitly.”

Anjanette Riley in the A. James Clark School of Engineering contributed to this story.