photo of Notre Dame concrete canoe presentation
The Notre Dame University concrete canoe team makes its presentation during the virtual Great Lakes Student Conference.

There was a moment of quiet after the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign concrete canoe team completed their presentation during the recent virtual Great Lakes Student Conference.

“I wish we had a soundtrack to play with applause,” one of the judges, Arielle Malinowski, joked.

Yes, the student conferences are a little different this spring, hosted by different colleges’ and universities’ ASCE student chapters as virtual events. But the conferences are succeeding in the new format – particularly after many of last spring’s events were canceled outright at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UIUC team executed an excellent presentation even without the auditorium applause, and the Purdue University-hosted Great Lakes Student Conference had all the fundamental tenets of an ASCE event: students meeting, sharing ideas, having fun, competing, and learning.

“I think things went very well,” said Mackenzie Henson, graduating senior in civil engineering at Purdue University and coordinator of the 2021 Great Lakes Student Conference. “It was challenging to turn an in-person event into a virtual event, but we were able to make changes to accommodate the new format. The conference was a success, and the students had fun.”

The Great Lakes Student Conference was one of 19 student conferences on the ASCE calendar this spring – 18 in North America and one in India. The conferences of course are primarily about professional development, but a big part of that – and maybe the most fun aspect – are the competitions.

This year featured a large array of ASCE competitions: the concrete canoe competition, the ASCE sustainable solutions competition, the ASCE Utility Engineering and Surveying Institute competition, the ASCE Blue Sky Innovation Contest pilot, the ASCE Construction Institute Student Conference competition pilot, and the Timber-Strong Design Build competition pilot.

The concrete canoe competitions do not feature the usual series of races this year but instead judge each team in three categories: a technical proposal for a canoe prototype, oral presentation, and their use of different enhanced focus areas in their proposal.

The top-finishing student chapters at the student conferences in concrete canoe, surveying, and sustainable solutions advance to compete in the Society-wide competitions weekend, June 25-27, hosted by the University of Wisconsin–Platteville and ASCE on a virtual platform.

The virtual format allowed different conference hosts to try different innovations too. For instance, an AutoCAD competition worked perfectly in the online venue at the Great Lakes Student Conference.

“After looking through the archives of past events held at different student conferences, I stumbled upon an AutoCAD competition that we could make into a virtual competition,” Henson said. “In an online format, students would not have the judges looking over their shoulder while they worked, and we wouldn’t have to rent out a computer lab on campus to host the event. This way, students could use their own computer in the comfort of their own home, and we could run everything from one computer.

“Not that we couldn’t have pulled it off in an in-person setting, but we tailored it to be a virtual event but still be interactive.”

virtual student conference

The North Central Student Conference hosted a Younger Member panel as part of its program.

At the Pacific Southwest Student Conference, the hosts at UCLA added several features to the program, specifically geared for a virtual environment.

"The Pacific Southwest Conference traditionally hosts a variety of nontechnical events, and with the virtual platform, we adopted some fun online games," said Tori Mok, civil and environmental engineering student at UCLA and the conference chair. "For example, we hosted a Nintendo Smash Ultimate tournament and a Tetris tournament.

"We were also able to host the first PSWC talent show during our closing banquet. Students took advantage of the virtual platform by editing their video submissions or by showcasing talents that would not have been possible in-person, such as rock climbing. And we live-streamed all of our events on Facebook, so the conference experience could be shared with friends and family.

"We are grateful for the new opportunities that the virtual platform provided."

Learn more about ASCE’s student conferences.

This program funded in part by the ASCE Foundation. Learn more.