ENMU concrete canoe project helps Clovis native come out of shell

New Mexico State University students Shane Brooks, front, and Ashleigh Wilson paddle their concrete canoe which the engineering students design, build and race. Courtesy photo: Kenny Stevens.

By Rick White: CNJ sports editor

A New Mexico State University program in which engineering students design, build and race a concrete canoe would be sunk without the efforts of a 2001 Clovis High graduate and a handful of other students.

New Mexico State recently won a regional competition and is headed for Rustin, Va., next month for a national competition sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

NMSU engineering technology professor Kenny Stevens said Ashleigh Wilson’s boundless energy and enthusiasm are contagious. He called the junior civil engineering major the program’s “ambassador.”

“She’s our spiritual counselor and helps keep the morale up,” Stevens said. “Any time we’re doing something she’s there helping out.”

One of Wilson’s primary duties is fund-raising — she also helped with the construction of the 20-foot-long canoe and races in the two-women event, one of five races in the competition.

“She basically single-handedly found ways for us to raise $18,000,” Stevens said.

Donna Wilson, a speech therapist for Clovis Municipal Schools, was somewhat surprised when she learned her daughter was involved with the concrete canoe project — “I didn’t realize concrete would float” — but not with her prowess as a fund-raiser.

“She’s always been able to lobby for money from her grandfather,” she said. “She gets whatever she wants.”

Her grandfather, who owns a construction firm in Lubbock, was one of the reasons Ashleigh Wilson went into engineering.

“I really admire my grandfather and I figured it would give us something to talk about,” she said.

Wilson, who said she was an average math and science student at Clovis, learned about the concrete canoe program through a work-study job in which she worked in the school’s materials lab mixing concrete used in research projects.

Replacing the sand and gravel used in traditional concrete with less dense material such as pearlite (the white stuff in potting soil) and the glass residue left over from burning coal makes the modified concrete lighter than water, Stevens said.

Stevens said students mixed 80 versions of concrete in an effort to gain the best strength-to-weight ratio for the canoe, which weighs 170 pounds.

Stevens estimated more than 4,000 hours went into the canoe project, which is also judged on aesthetics, a verbal presentation and a 30-page formal report.

“When you look at the project on face value, it looks pretty silly,” Stevens said. “But what it’s really about is learning how to work with other people to accomplish something.”

Working on the project has also helped the once shy Wilson develop her social skills to the point where she gives elaborate presentations in front of student, administration and civic groups.

“I think the whole thing of being away from home and working with people has helped me come out of my shell,” Wilson said. “I’ve gotten a lot more involved with things at school and it’s opened a lot more opportunities.”

And a concrete outlook on her future.