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Like a Duck to Water

Posted on December 5th, 2014

by Shianne Gruss

Have you ever heard of a concrete canoe?

Neither had IIHR student researcher Stephanie Then until she joined the University of Iowa Student Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers her freshman year. Since the 1970s, universities across the nation have been competing in concrete canoe races. Now a senior and president of her ASCE chapter, Then has been in on the competition for four years.

team members

Stephanie Then and the rest of the UI ASCE concrete canoe rowing team with their design—the “Pocahontas”—in 2013.

“It is so much fun getting to put the material we learn in class and labs to a real life project,” Then says. A civil and environmental engineering major, Then is interested primarily in water resources engineering. “There are so many variables we need to account for throughout the entire process, and if just one thing is forgotten, it could result in a sinking or broken canoe on competition day.”That’s if the team can make it to competition day, which occurs every April. Then admits there are many things that could go wrong during the mix and hull designs, and on pour day. “We have to consider a lot of things, like strength, stability, a light weight smoothness, and most importantly, flotation,” she says. It’s not unusual for fluctuating temperatures and humidity to cause the canoe to crack.

When Then isn’t busy with the design and construction of her team’s canoe, which can take all year, she assists IIHR researcher Carrie Davis’ team at the Lucille A. Carver Mississippi Riverside Environmental Research Station, where she collects and analyzes data for the Water Quality Nutrient Network. Davis says Then is a motivated and dedicated worker, and that it has been a pleasure to work with her over the past year. “On day one, she was not afraid to ‘get her hands dirty,’” Davis adds.

Then is also involved with the UI Water Plant’s river osmosis pilot study, which could help reduce nitrates in our drinking water and inhibit the formation of harmful chlorine byproducts. Then has been a student operator at the plant since her freshman year and is a reliable and intelligent employee, says plant manager Scott Slee. “She is able to lead when needed but is also very good at knowing when to work as part of the team to get the task complete,” he says.

Since joining the IIHR team the summer after her sophomore year, Then has done her fair share of teamwork—cleaning sensors, downloading data, and building structures for the Water Quality Nutrient Network. In January, however, she will move on to her master’s research under IIHR Director Larry Weber before graduating in May 2016 with both her master’s and bachelor’s degrees. She then hopes to stay in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City community working on something nutrient- or flood-related.

Having grown up near a family farm in Peosta, Iowa, a bedroom community of Dubuque, Then is quite familiar with the severity of the nutrient runoff problem in the agricultural and flood-prone Midwest. “It’s something we definitely need to be knowledgeable about because it is affecting the environment, especially down in the gulf,” she says. “Now that we know what it’s doing, finding a way to reduce the nutrient runoff is something that Iowans need to definitely consider, being one of the top agricultural areas in the world. I want to do what I can and use my engineering knowledge to help the cause and reduce nutrient runoff.”

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