It’s not difficult for Yuliana Armenta and Rene Bermudez to pinpoint their most pivotal experience during the time they spent earning degrees in civil engineering at Arizona State University.
They say much of the best of what they got out of their undergraduate years — and what helped put them on course to start careers in engineering — sprung from their work to design and build a canoe.
In this case, a watercraft made of concrete.
Bermudez was captain and project manager, and Armenta was a co-captain, on the team that entered the American Society of Civil Engineers annual student Concrete Canoe Competition in 2008.
Making a canoe out of concrete and putting it through competitive performance tests (a race, a presentation, a technical report and a display) challenges students to demonstrate their mastery of basic engineering skills.
Armenta recalls that in the weeks leading up to the competition, “We fell in love with the project and ended up spending more time working on the canoe than on class work.”
It was her first year on the team. Bermudez had been on the teams in the previous three years. Each time, the ASU squad’s canoe broke in half during the competition.
He took on the leadership role on the 2008 team because he was on a mission.
“I had learned a lot in those three years and I knew I could help build a canoe that was not going to crack,” he says.
At the competition that spring hosted by California State University, Northridge, the canoe did not crack. Going up against teams from the 18 other universities in the ASCE’s Pacific Southwest Conference, ASU’s team finished fourth overall. It was at the time the best performance ever by an ASU team.
The 2008 canoe is special for other reasons.
As the team was working on it, Bermudez found out his mother had breast cancer.
The team — for which Armenta had been deemed the “aesthetics engineer” — then decided to name the canoe “Breastroke,” and put on it the pink ribbon logo associated with breast cancer awareness efforts.
The slogan for the canoe project became “Fighting Cancer with the Strength of Concrete.” The team even displayed the boat as part of a local fundraising event put on by a national breast cancer organization.
Other good things came out of the experience.
“We had great teammates. They are still some of our best friends,” says Bermudez.
He and Armenta also say their various duties on the project — finding industry sponsors, raising funds, leadership and management roles — gave them the contacts, connections and skills that helped them get engineering jobs.
Bermudez says that the Concrete Canoe project and the year he served as president of ASU’s ASCE chapter provided him “the perfect transition from the world of academia into the world of industry.”
Armenta, likewise, says the teamwork helped to give her confidence in what she could achieve.
She now works for HDR, a large architecture and engineering consulting company, where she does site design and related work that’s necessary “to get building projects off the ground.”
She worked on the demolition plan for the company’s project to take down the old Palo Verde Main student residence complex on ASU’s Tempe campus. She had lived for a year at the original complex when she was studying at the university.
Bermudez works as a cost estimator for Haydon Building Corp., a civil engineering and construction contracting company that builds infrastructure such as highways and bridges, as well as buildings and facilities for hospitals and schools.
The Concrete Canoe team’s year-long collaboration also led to them spending a lot of time together.
They married in 2014, and moved into a house in Phoenix where they’ve since put the “Breastroke” canoe on display in the front yard.
“That canoe brought a lot of things into our life,” Bermudez says.
One of the things in their lives now is a growing family. They have a young son, soon to be four years old, plus another boy due in the fall.
Armenta and Bermudez say they would be more than pleased if one or both of the boys someday decided to become engineers.
Read related story: “Student engineering team taking “Harry Potter”-themed canoe into competition”