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Martha Trescott Prize recipient 2021

Recipient 2021, Amy Sue Bix (IOWA State University)

“Mastering the Hard Stuff: The History of College Concrete-Canoe Races and the Growth of Engineering Competition Culture.” Engineering Studies, July 2019, v. 11 (2): 109-134.

We selected “Mastering the Hard Stuff: The History of College Concrete-Canoe Races and the Growth of Engineering Competition Culture” by Amy Bix because it is an excellent work of critical scholarship, bringing forward important questions about social responsibly in engineering and using primary sources to answer them.

As Dr. Bix explains, the impetus for the first concrete canoe race, held in Illinois in 1971, came jointly from the American Concrete Institute, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and college professors who wanted their engineering students to (quite literally) get their hands dirty. From this seemingly improbable beginning, engineering competitions expanded across university campuses, into other industries, and eventually into K-12 education. Bix’s study illustrates how an initiative that originated with conflicted intentions—serving industry’s needs while broadening educational experiences—is today even more conflicted. “Underneath innovation-centered imagery, competitions often reflected conservative sides of the engineering/business alliance”: for example, a major automotive competition barred hybrid vehicles until environmentally conscious students pushed to create a new competition for them. Bix also demonstrates that as contests became more elaborate and wealthier schools lavished funds on their teams, schools with fewer resources were shut out, and the focus on cut-throat competitiveness reinforced the stereotype of engineering as a masculine domain. In these ways, “competitions created new paths to keep merit flowing to the favored.”

Bix’s critical examination of the cultural messages and power dynamics of engineering competitions compels us to consider the social responsibility of engineering educators, in the spirit of the Trescott Prize.