Every year, engineering students throughout North America hold competitions to test their skills. They build robots and solar cars – combining technical prowess with creative design. In Canada, engineering students have devised their own contest. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, their contribution to the engineering world is a toboggan made of concrete:
Every year, engineering students throughout North America hold competitions to test their skills.
They build robots and solar cars – combining technical prowess with creative design. In Canada,
engineering students have devised their own contest. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Karen Kelly reports, their contribution to the engineering world is a toboggan made of concrete:
(sound in gym)
It’s 10 am, Friday morning. The gym at Carleton University in Ottawa is packed with
engineering students. They’ve arrived for the technical exhibition of the Great Northern Concrete
Because it’s the last thing you’d expect on a sled.
Teams from 14 universities across Canada are here to display their designs – and to show off their
(sound of chanting)
There’s the oompa loompa team wearing overalls and matching green braids.
There’s the Big Fat Greek Tobaggan crew – hanging out in togas beneath a cardboard Parthenon.
And there are the Flaming Fowls, with caps featuring chicken legs made of yellow felt.
But it’s not just about costumes – it’s about the sled…
“So what’s special about your sled?”
“Well, one major thing its covered in feathers. As you can see, we went for a giant chicken.”
Giant as in 300 pounds – complete with a concrete bottom and a papier mache chicken head on
top. Andrew Kwiatkowski is team captain.
“Our running surface, what we did, we made a contour bottom so it’s higher up in the front and as
it goes back, it progressively flattens out so in theory, it will compact the snow and make us ride
“Have you tried it out?”
“No, because our brakes – we actually worked on it on Wednesday before coming up. We didn’t
get a chance to test anything.”
The Flaming Fowls are not alone. Most of the sleds will make their inaugural run tomorrow – the
day of the race. Test runs, they say, are too risky. Hit a bump too fast, and the concrete can
“Well, we’re from university of Waterloo. Our sled’s name is Return of the Sledi, obviously Stars
Dan Roscoe runs a hand over the thick slab of concrete that coats the bottom of his sled. Each
sled is required to have a concrete bottom, a working brake, and room for five passengers.
Roscoe is particularly proud of the Sledi brake, which relies on borrowed parts to cushion the
“The whole braking unit is riding on the aluminum column there, which at the back has 2 springs
off a Ford Pinto, so hopefully the riders won’t stop as quickly as the brake does.”
The competition offers a reward for best braking system, as well as best design, top speed and
best toboggan aesthetics.
But it’s really not about the prizes. Josh White and Emil Lauren are with Team Oompa Loompa.
And their focus is on having fun.
“It’s an awesome time. Plus, it’s really cool. You get to actually build something and apply what
you learned in class so it’s…and you’ve got to love the challenge. Building something that’s
theoretically impossible like super strong lightweight concrete, a sled out of things a sled
shouldn’t be built out of. It’s kind of fun just meeting that challenge.”
(cross fade with scraping)
The next morning, the teams gather at the top of a local ski hill. They huddle around their sleds,
rubbing them with thick layers of wax.
Carlos Deolivera is captain of Return of the Sledi. His team’s made some last minute safety
adjustments – covering sharp edges with styrofoam.
“So do you think this styrofoam held on by duct tape will actually protect people?”
“It’s a 300 pound toboggan with five riders, it’s not gonna be being cut that’s going to kill ya, it’s
the weight and the momentum of everything hitting ya. It’s just a little bit of safety in a
Nearby is the team for the University of Calgary Chuckboggan – as in chuckwagon. They’re
mourning the loss of their longtime toboggan ritual.
“University of Calgary had a long tradition of nakedness at this competition. So last year we
brought it back, did a fully naked run in Edmonton, and got suspended by the university so this
year there won’t be any nudity, I don’t think. And it’s quite a bit colder here, too, I think.”
(sound of chanting)
The race begins and the crowd chants as the chickenhead tobaggon slides to the top of the 78 foot
“You guys ready?”
“Never. If we’re not, it doesn’t matter. We’re petrified.”
“Oh yeah. You can almost say we’re chicken, oh! (groans)”
The fog horn blows and the sled gets a push. The huge chicken slides about ten feet – and then
grinds to a stop.
It’s a disappointing finish for the chicken team as they push their sled to the side of the track.
Next up is the University of Calgary’s Chuckboggan.
(horn, then whoosh)
They fly by – fully clothed – and cross the finish line, winning first place. A few minutes later,
the Return of the Sledi grabs second place.
The Flaming Fowls do make it down the hill eventually – pushed by a crowd of other competitors.
But that’s the spirit of this event – in the end, helping a giant chicken cross the finish line is just as
important as whether you win or lose.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.