Introduction to alternative shipbuilding

Imagine this – you’re stranded on a deserted island with with nothing more than some Doritos and 10,000 rolls of packing tape. Just when all hope seems lost (you’ve already eaten the Doritos), you uncover a large stash of cardboard hidden on the island.

What do you do? Investigate? Attempt to swim away? Cut the cardboard into triangles and pretend they’re Doritos?

None of the above. You build a boat.

If this scenario sounds similar to a Mythbusters episode, well… it is. But it’s also very similar to what my fellow engineers and I got to do last week in the Cardboard Canoe Challenge!


The rules for our challenge were fairly simple. No cardboard could touch the water without tape covering it, and we had to make a paddle to row with. We had two hours to work with our teams to make a boat that met these criteria and that could out sail competing teams around the swimming pool at the new Boilermaker Aquatic Complex.

It wasn’t exactly an easy task. Packing tape, unlike duct tape, doesn’t come perforated,  and cardboard is a less forgiving material than steel. Nevertheless, after 120 minutes we’d come up with a design we could all be proud of.

The HMS Word - your author is third from the right.
The HMS Word – your author is third from the right, holding the paddle.

Pride, of course, was also a major motivator for us to win the race. We saw some pretty fierce-looking designs for the other teams (there were about 15 teams altogether), but held out hope that ours would ultimately prevail. Most teams had tried to minimize weight by making small one-person box boats or variations on that theme. We had gone the opposite way, reasoning that surface area was more important than weight.

It turns out that was the right assumption! Trevor – the guy on my left – paddled the boat to victory by a convincing margin, leaving the second-best boat half a lap behind when he crossed the finish line. Victory never smelt so… chlorinated.

Let me give you a couple of takeaways from this experience.

One of the neat things about college is that you get time to do goofy things like race cardboard canoes in the campus swimming pool. And one of the neat things about Purdue is that you have the opportunity to pretend to be a serious engineer working on this kind of unserious project. I was very “career focused” in high school and didn’t have time for weird projects like this one. But from what I’ve found, you learn almost as much from this kind of stuff as a weekend of studying, jazz band, or soccer – it’s just that the things you learn are different.

So while you’re considering where you want to go to college, keep the fun factor in mind. The college experience isn’t all about grades and lectures. It’s also about how you can grow and have fun at the same time. For me, the best school for that will always be Purdue.

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