Ethan danced as an overcast morning gave way to just enough light to allow the solar-powered boat he’d built with his classmate Brandy to pull ahead in the race. When his boat reached the end of the three-lane track first, the sun wasn’t the only thing beaming.
For Ethan and his fellow fifth-graders at Peter S. Ogden Elementary, joyful learning was the order of the day as they gathered near the playground on June 11 to test the seaworthiness of their vessels.
The project originated in teacher Carol Patrick’s class, but the other two fifth-grade classes also got a chance to learn about solar power, physics and astronomy as they made their own miniature boats and cars.
Creating hulls from discarded plastic water bottles, positioning rudders and wiring solar panels to motors proved to be just as educational as the theoretical work. “The kids asked, ‘Why don’t we try this smaller water bottle?’ or said, ‘Let’s try this bigger one.’ It became more scientific because kids wanted to change the variables,” said Patrick.
“We had to keep constructing it, making it better and finding solutions,” said Gianni Harrington-Lake of the boat he fashioned with classmate Jackson Jay.
However, students discovered that building ships, albeit small ones, wasn’t something they could simply cruise through. “Definitely a fun project, but if you mess up, it does get a little difficult,” added Jay.
It also was a learning experience for Patrick, who received a stipend for the unit from the Solar 4R Schools Renewable Energy Educator Lab, a professional development opportunity underwritten by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Her curriculum will eventually be made available to teachers all over the country on the Solar 4R Schools website.
After a school year of work, the students were rewarded with a chance to race their sailing crafts. The multi-use track was designed by Fort Vancouver High School teacher David Richards and built by students in the Welding/Fabrication Technology program using wood donated by Parr Lumber.
While the race at Ogden was more science than competition, and more regalement than regatta, the lesson will be a lasting memory from fifth-grade. “It’s cementing in their learning much more powerfully because it’s so engaging,” said Patrick.