EPICS program gives Ohio Northern engineering students an opportunity to help a local community honor its past.
The cannons in the village of Forest, Ohio, have reminded the townspeople of sacrifices made in the name of freedom for more than a century. For as long as anyone can remember, they have been there in Gormley Park, resting peacefully in retirement. The echoes of their final bombardments faded deep into memory, replaced each day with joyful sounds of birdsongs and laughing children.
ONU launched the EPICS program in fall 2012. Read more.
Learn about the Mars rover EPICS project.
Long ago, the first cracks appeared in the cannons’ concrete bases. Over the decades, the cracks grew wider and deeper. In time, great chunks of concrete fell away, taking with them some of the grandeur of the old guns.
A few years ago, the Forest Recreation Board sought to address the deteriorating state of these treasured memorials. The local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) donated $500 for repair, but as the board began to look closer at the issue, it found more questions than answers. No one knew exactly how the bases were constructed. Could they repair something they knew so little about? What if they made things worse? As generous as the VFW’s donation was, was it even enough to pay for the renovation?
Forest Mayor Tom Seem was a member of the Recreation Board when talks of repairing the cannons began. After being elected mayor, he attended a meeting of the Sons of the Veterans of the Civil War in Kenton, Ohio, where he mentioned his desire to see the cannons restored. Someone suggested reaching out to the engineering departments at one of the local colleges to see if there was anyone who could provide some answers.
Seem called Dean Eric Baumgartner of Ohio Northern University’s T.J. Smull College of Engineering with an appeal for help with the cannons. Having recently returned from an EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) conference at Purdue University, Baumgartner was intrigued by the request. EPICS is an academic program for colleges and universities that combines engineering with service learning, something ONU values greatly in its overall mission.
Baumgartner was looking for projects that would qualify for the EPICS program. EPICS projects benefit a nonprofit community service or education organization in one of following areas: human services, access and abilities, education and outreach, and the environment. He was already planning to build a replica of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity for the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio, and a new website for ONU’s hometown of Ada, Ohio. Restoring the Forest cannons would give the college a project to attract civil engineering students, ensuring that all six majors – mechanical, electrical, civil, computer, computer science and engineering education – were represented in ONU’s initial foray into EPICS. Now, Baumgartner just needed a faculty advisor.
Tom Zechman served 23 years as the public works director in Piqua, Ohio, before joining ONU six years ago. He is currently the assistant dean of the college and professor of civil engineering.
“We dove right it. Everything sort of came together at the right time,” says Zechman. “I was happy to serve as advisor, because I knew it would be tremendous experience for our students.”
“The big question is: ‘How do you build a structure that can safely hold a 16,000 pound cannon?’ We had to answer that before anything else,” says Patarini.
What’s unique about EPICS from a teaching perspective is that the students work directly with a community partner. They are asked to apply the knowledge they’ve learned in the classroom to a project that they aren’t solely in charge of, and at they end they have to deliver a tangible product. EPICS projects are not only about design, but also about communication, project management, research, fabrication, installation — all the aspects of civil engineering in real world.
The college offered EPICS as a one-credit-hour elective course for fall semester 2012. They sent an email to all the engineering students explaining EPICS and the pilot projects ONU had chosen for it. Eight students registered for the cannon project, and soon work was underway to remedy a problem a century in the making.
“I was originally interested in the course just because it was a community service project and I like doing volunteer work. The chance to apply what I’ve learned to a real-world application was also really interesting,” says Gabi Patarini, a senior civil engineering major from Elyira, Ohio.
The Forest Recreation Board had resisted taking action themselves because of the many questions they didn’t have answers to. Finding those answers would take research, so the eight engineers became historians.
They researched the Village of Forest. They studied artillery. They learned about the Civil War. They had historians come speak to their class. Before long, they knew quite a bit about the cannons in Gormley Park. They knew they were called Rodman guns and that they were Civil War-era rampart cannons used to protect waterways primarily along the east coast. More specifically, they identified the cannons as model M. 1861 10-inch guns, numbers 60 and 62 of 1,301 produced between 1862 and 1867.
The Forest Public Library had compiled source material on the cannons and the story of how they came to rest in Forest. The students learned that in 1906, a group of Civil War veterans contacted the War Department to inquire about purchasing a cannon for a memorial. The War Department offered them one cannon for $250 or two cannons for just $10 more. With a deal like that, who could say no?
So two cannons were dedicated in the summer of 1906 on a piece of land that would later become Gormley Park. They were set onto concrete bases, one pointing out over a pond and the other about 300 feet to the west pointing north. Over the years, the park grew up around the cannons into the focal point of the community.
“The village people are very, very proud of the cannons. We have photographs dating back years and years of people sitting on them. In fact, there is one with 12 Girl Scouts sitting along the length of the barrel,” says Seem.
The class then turned its attention to technical research. Since the Forest Recreation Board hadn’t stipulated that the class copy the existing bases, students researched different styles of pedestals and foundations. They looked into various materials, including concrete, steel, masonry and even wood. They went to Recreation Board meetings and asked the community for its input on placement of the cannons and what they wanted the bases to look like. They measured the cannons and calculated their weight based on the dimensions and the known physical properties of cast iron, even taking into account concrete that was poured into the barrels to seal them.
With fall semester winding down and the research phase complete, the class prepared for the next phase in the project: design.
A well-oiled machine
In the spring, the class welcomed a couple of new students and began operating like consulting firm. The students assigned themselves roles to distribute the work evenly. They had project managers, a structural designer, foundation designers, historians, communication liaisons and a logistician.
“I was struck by how organized the students were,” says Seem. “They had their assignments spread out very well, but in chatting with different students, you could tell that each one knew everything about the project. George Hess really stood out. He really projected a friendly confidence that put everyone at ease.”
On the first day of class, Hess, a junior construction management major from Newbury, Ohio, volunteered to be project manager. From that moment, his leadership on the project was unmatched. When the rigors of college life prevented the rest of the class from attending Recreation Board meetings in Forest, he went alone. He drove to Findlay to examine the Rodman cannon there, and when he heard third-hand that there might be another cannon monument in Hardin County in need of restoration, he was the first to say, “Let's go do it!”
As the class pondered different designs, they made sure to stay focused on the primary engineering challenge.
“The big question is: ‘How do you build a structure that can safely hold a 16,000 pound cannon?’ We had to answer that before anything else,” says Patarini.
The students submitted three designs to the board, and interestingly, all three called for steel for the building material. Zechman assumed that the students would design new concrete bases to replace the old ones.
“I had to bite my lip,” he says. “I personally think concrete is easier, and I think the recreation board thought we’d be using concrete. But it turns out that steel is actually more authentic.”
Rodman cannons were far too large and heavy to be transported to battlefields. They were fixed artillery pieces, but they weren’t static. Each cannon would have been mounted on a sophisticated carriage that could swivel left to right and tilt up and down for aiming. It sat on a pair of rails so it could slide back to control the recoil from being fired. Photographs exist of Rodman cannons mounted on these bases, and seeing them gave the students ideas.
A Rodman cannon and gun crew in service during the Civil War.
“We started off with the idea that we wanted to make it look like it would back in the day when it was actually used,” says Alex Frey, a senior mechanical engineering major from Upper Sandusky, Ohio. “But when we looked at how expensive that would be, and how intricate the parts would have to be, it just wasn’t realistic.”
The second design was essentially the first design without the rail system. The third design was more of a classic pedestal but with aesthetic elements of the original base.
Though he personally felt that all three designs were excellent, Zechman wondered if the Forest Recreation Board would agree to the steel designs.
“Part of engineering is that the thing you are building has to work, but it also has to look like it works,” he says. “The steel frames designs were not as massive as the big concrete bases. There was some murmuring of doubt among the townspeople about whether the designs would work. But the board actually really liked the idea. It was a consensus process, and the whole group bought in early to using steel.”
The Recreation Board ultimately decided on the third design, the pedestal base. It was by far the simplest design, and by selecting it over the more complicated designs, the board inadvertently reminded the students of one of the great maxims of civil engineering: Don’t over think it.
Real-world engineering projects differ from classroom exercises. Sure, the students have the skill to design something far more advanced, but adding that key variable of the deliverable — the tangible product owed to the client — changes the equation entirely.
“That’s why this experience is so good for us. In a classroom, you can make the world the way you want to. We have the calculations that tell us if our ideas will work. But the real world doesn’t work like that. At the end of the day, there is a price tag and somebody has to build this thing. When you are faced with that, you see why you can’t do the ideal all the time,” says Frey.
One of the classes early designs.
A plan evolves
With the design selected, the students and Recreation Board met for a final time in Gormley Park to discuss the placement of the cannons. They decided to keep them in the same places with one significant change. The board asked that the north-facing cannon on the west side of the park be turned 90 degrees so that it, too, pointed out over the Gormley Park pond.
“These cannons originally protected a waterway, so we asked that they both be positioned to represent protecting our waterway,” says Seem.
By March, it was clear to Zechman that the project would not be completed before the end of the semester. The students’ plan still called for fabricating the bases, pouring concrete foundations for the bases to sit upon, and, most importantly, lifting the cannon out of their existing bases and into the new ones. From the start, Zechman told the class that the integrity of the job trumped the academic calendar. They would do the job right, and they would take all the time they needed. They lost one senior to graduation, but the rest of the students vowed to register for the class in the fall to see the project through.
Zechman used the summer to line up professional contractors to complete the project. He figured that the plan’s three separate and distinct tasks would require three different contractors. The contacts he’d made over the course of more than two decades in the field came in handy. For the concrete foundations, Zechman reached out to long-time friend Mike Brookhart, a concrete contractor and Civil War buff whom he’d already consulted with on some of the historical aspects of the project.
To lift the cannon, Zechman called a former co-op student of his, the current Executive Vice President of Business Development of PSC Crane & Rigging, Randy Sever. PSC has lifted objects in excess of 250,000 lbs, so Zechman knew they were more than qualified for the job. Plus, PSC was familiar with ONU, having installed massive air-conditioning units on top of ONU’s law building over the summer.
“Their cranes are orange and black, so they fit in well here,” says Zechman.
Finding someone to fabricate the steel bases proved more difficult, and as fall semester began, Zechman still didn’t know who was going to bring his students’ design to life.
In September, PSC invited the class to visit its facility to discuss the steps involved with lifting a pair 16,000-pound antique cannons from 100-year-old concrete. During this meeting, they learned that PSC also did metal fabrication and would be willing to build the bases. This would prove ideal because having the same company build and place the bases would ease the timeframe a little and give the lifting crew advanced knowledge of what exactly they were lifting into place.
After visiting PSC, Zechman brought all the students over to his house for dinner. He also invited Brookhart to give a lecture on the art of pouring concrete.
Every civil engineering student at ONU takes a course on concrete design. In it, they learn about the characteristics of concrete and the ways it can be manipulated to meet the demands of a particular application. They learn how concrete cures and how to speed up or slow down that process. They learn how to make concrete lighter and how to make it stronger. But nowhere in a concrete design class do they learn how to pour it — certainly not to the extent they learned that day.
Zechman contracted Brookhart to act as a foreman. He wanted his students to do as much of the actual work at possible. Brookhart declined monetary compensation for his role, instead —tongue planted firmly in cheek— asking to be named an honorary professor. When he’d finished his lecture, Zechman presented him with a letter signed by Dean Baumgartner that did just that.
With the contractors lined up, the final step was to draw up an official agreement with the village of Forest containing hold-harmless stipulations to protect the student consultants and ONU from liability for accidents or damage resulting from moving the cannons.
“Perhaps the most eye-opening part of this entire project for the students was the risk-management session we had,” says Zechman. “We spent an hour just talking about all the things that could wrong. We could break a water line. We could knock over a light pole. The crane could tear up the asphalt in the park. Heaven forbid, somebody could get hurt or the cannon could break in half! There is more to a job like this than just getting the engineering right. We made sure the students knew about this vitally important part of project management.”
Three moments of truth
On Oct. 3, the students met “Professor Mike” Brookhart in Gormley Park to pour the two new concrete foundations for the steel bases that PSC was in the process of fabricating. It was another reminder not to overthink the process. While their concrete design course had taught them how to make concrete for just about any application, in this instance it proved unnecessary. Regular off-the-shelf class C concrete was more than sufficient for the 6-foot-by-6-foot-by-1-foot floating slab they’d designed to hold the bases. Creating a custom mix may have been an interesting learning experience, but knowing they didn’t need to was a valuable one.
Brookhart worked with the students on the first slab, but he turned the second one over to them. With the exception of some finishing work, the students did the jobs themselves. Four days later, the students returned to remove the timber forms, and the slabs were left to cure for the required 28 days. Finally, after nearly three semesters of work, the day arrived to move the cannons. And like a fitting climax to any story, it was rife with drama.
There were three pivotal moments on Thursday, Nov. 21, that the students would have to get through for their EPICS project to be successful. First, the bases had to be right. Until that day, the students hadn’t actually seen the fabricated structures that they’d designed. In fact, some of the most valuable experience they received was in communicating with the engineers at PSC after they’d sent them their design.
“We hadn’t even thought about using full steel plating on our base,” says Nathan Ogden, a junior civil engineering major from Avon, Ohio. “We told PSC that the Recreation Board was concerned about kids playing underneath the cannon. Our design was open underneath. We thought about using bars, but they said it would be better to use full plating to make it one solid structure.
“It was like this step-by-step process. We identified a concern. We expressed it to our contractor. and once they understood the concern, they knew exactly how to fix the problem. It sounds simple, but that is something I would have never experienced if I wasn’t in this class.”
When the PSC tractor-trailer arrived in Forest with a bright orange crane and the two black steel bases in tow, all fears were assuaged. The bases looked great.
The second, and perhaps most nerve-rattling moment for the residents of Forest who came to watch, was lifting the first cannon. The answer to the original question the Forest Recreation Board had asked itself years ago was about to be answered. Just what was underneath that cannon? Until that moment, no one knew if it was anchored to the base or if its massive weight and gravity alone had held it in place for 107 years.
“There is some non-destructive analysis you can do on materials using x-ray equipment to learn what’s inside,” says Zechman. “It’s expensive. We would have had to hire another contractor to do that work. So we didn’t do that. But we did discuss it, and the students are aware of that option in case they run into it during their careers.”
The crane contractor wrapped fabric-lifting straps around the front and back of the cannon to create a sling. As the crane began to lift, students and townspeople alike held their breath as the diesel motor revved and the straps tightened around cast iron. After a second or two, the cannon popped right out.
With the cannon removed, the students could finally see how their counterparts a century ago approached the very problem they’d worked three semesters to solve. Inside the concrete base, they found a solid concrete pedestal that actually held the weight of the cannon. To keep the cannon from rolling from side to side on its cylindrical underbelly, two pieces of railroad track had been placed into the concrete parallel to where the cannon would lay. After the cannon was placed on the pedestal, the rest of the concrete was poured around it to complete the look.
The final scary moment of the day came with placing the cannon into its new base. As Zechman put it, “That cradle had never seen the baby that was about to sit into it.” This was the real moment of truth for the students, especially for Stephen Berner, the senior civil engineering major who drew up the design. The fit was more in question than its strength. Structural design computations told them that the steel structure would support the 8 tons, but the cannon’s irregular shape did make things interesting for a few moments before the cannon was placed snuggly in its new home.
In only a few hours, both cannons were placed on their new bases, ready for the next 100 years and beyond.
“It was great to see,” says Frey. “We had been working on this a year and a half. It was nice to see the result of all that work.”
For Ogden, the culmination of the project was far from where he’d started.
“I originally signed up for the class because I thought it might be an easy A. It was only one credit hour, so I didn’t think I would have to do a whole lot,” he says. “But in all honesty, this might be the most work I have put into a class here.”
True to its name
EPICS was created to give students real-world, hands-on engineering experience and to assist communities or nonprofits with engineering problems that are too difficult or too expensive to do themselves
The Forest Park Board wasn’t sure if the $500 donation from the VFW would be enough to repair the cannons, and they were right. They would have likely needed 10 times that amount had they attempted this project without ONU. The University underwrote the expense of lifting and setting the bases, and some labor costs involved with their fabrication. PSC donated the materials for the bases and the powder coating and a great deal of technical advice and design oversight. “Professor Mike” Brookhart donated his time, but there were still material costs associated with the concrete foundations that ONU also provided. If not for EPICS and some fortunate timing, Zechman isn’t sure that Forest had many other options.
“I really don’t think it was going to happen. A village that size just doesn’t have the money to spend on something like this. They need those resources elsewhere. So, I think those cannons were just going to sit there, and those cracks were going to get worse and worse,” he says.
Seem offered a far more dire prediction.
“I’ve seen pictures of old cannons in cemeteries and parks where the concrete had just crumbled away to the point where the cannon had fallen on the ground. We were sure that that is what was going to happen eventually if we didn’t do something to intervene.”
There is little fear of that now. These monuments to military service will stand proudly in the village of Forest for generations to come. It’s a fitting project for college students, really. For they bestowed something upon a community that is lasting and, in return, received knowledge and experience that will remain with them always.