U of A engineering students to host 400 competitors at Great Northern Concrete Toboggan Race

(Edmonton) University of Alberta engineering students are defending their national championship and hosting what is considered the heavyweight championship of toboggan races this month.

From Jan. 26–29, teams of engineering students from about 20 Canadian universities will be in Edmonton for the Great Northern Concrete Toboggan Race, competing in a number of technical and race events for the national title.

Teams are required to design, build and safely race a toboggan with running surfaces made of concrete, weighing in at a hefty 300 pounds. Teams are judged by a panel of industry and academic experts on a number of elements including technical design and team spirit. But the competition everyone is waiting for takes place on the snow, where teams compete for fastest speed and shortest braking distance, and the most spectacular wipeout.

The fastest recorded speed on a concrete toboggan is an impressive 72 km/h.

The U of A’s Faculty of Engineering is defending its championship and so far, things are looking good, says team captain Elaine Rippon, a fourth-year civil engineering student.

While the event is fun, it is equally serious as an engineering challenge. Teams work long hours tailoring their own concrete mixes that are strong enough to carry five passengers downhill at top speeds without cracking or breaking under the stress.

“We have to prove that our sled is safe; we need to know precisely how strong our brake plates are, how strong our welds are, how strong our bolts are and how strong our concrete is in compression and tension,” Rippon said. “And it has to be designed and planned in such a way that if we gave someone who had never seen our sled our technical report, they would be able to build it and know how it works and why it is safe.”

Nigel Parker, one of the lead co-ordinators of the national championship, has competed in the nationals four times, including leading the U of A to victory last year. Parker knows what makes a successful national event. In many respects, he says, organizing the nationals is engineering an event for about 400 people rather than a toboggan for five.

It’s appropriate, too; Parker is now working on his master’s degree in engineering management.

While participants in student clubs and competitions are able to take knowledge they have learned in the classroom and apply it to real-life engineering challenges, they also learn important, intangible skills, like teamwork, communication and organizational skills.

“Definitely, a lot of the preparation for the contest is related to concrete and there is a lot of hands-on experience that gives you an appreciation for what makes a good weld and how to finish concrete,” said Parker, “but it also helps develop interpersonal skills and learning to meet and work with people you have never worked for. A lot of our sponsors and prospective employers see value in that.”

GNCTR 2011 Events:

Jan. 26: Teams from across Canada arrive for opening ceremonies.

Jan. 27: Teams are split up into groups for a day of fun activities on campus.

Jan. 28: Technical exhibition, presentations and judging, and career fair at the Edmonton Northlands Expo Centre, 8:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.

Jan. 29: Race on! Toboggans races run from 8 a.m.–4 p.m. at Gallagher Park near the Edmonton Ski Club.