Concrete canoe racing is an opportunity for engineering students to learn about putting theory into practice, as well as how to work together as a project team. The idea for a concrete canoe race was spawned in 1970 when University of Illinois professor Clyde Kesler had his civil engineering honors students build a concrete canoe. Kesler invited the Purdue University civil engineering department chairman to have his students also build a canoe, then race it against the U of I craft. The first race was in May 1971 and was won by U of I. The next year Purdue hosted a race and won first place over 18 schools that responded to the area-wide invitation to participate.

In 1988, the concrete canoe races became a national event, sponsored by Master Builders Inc. While race results are heavily weighted in choosing the overall winner, academic judging accounts for 60 percent of each team's total point score. The academic competition consists of three parts. Students must prepare a design paper that describes methods of hull design, concrete mixture selection and properties, reinforcement, forming, and applying the final finish. Students also prepare a poster-board display and deliver a 5-minute oral presentation that gives an overview of the entire project. Judges then examine the finished canoes, rating them on surface finish and quality of workmanship. Two race courses then test the teams' paddling abilities. One race tests canoe speed, while the other tests maneuverability.