Avast, ye mateys, we’ll tell you a tale
of middle school students encouraged to fail.
It’s the best way to learn, says their teacher Joe,
to build boats that survive the sea’s ebb and flow.
ASTORIA, Ore. — The news of the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami off the coast of Japan gripped the world in 2011. The reverberations of that quake were felt for years in the Pacific Northwest, where debris from the 9.0 earthquake washed up years later along the coast.
That debris served as the inspiration for the Columbia River Maritime Museum’s miniboat program, which challenges elementary and middle school students to build five-foot sailboats, sent out to the Pacific Ocean in hopes they make it to Japan.
About 100 students in Joe Boken’s seventh-grade science class at Wy’east Middle School joined this year’s cohort. Students at the Evergreen Public Schools campus divided into teams. One class built a miniboat, named S/V Kizuna Gou, which was launched off the coast of Japan on Thanksgiving day. Another group constructed a drifter, a small floating device that collects data on ocean currents as it goes.
And on Tuesday, students traveled to the museum in Astoria to see off the S/V Liberty, which begins her maiden voyage across the Pacific later this week.
It’s not guaranteed that the little ships will make it across the ocean — and to date, none have. That’s also not strictly the point. But the vast majority of work is done by students, with classes brainstorming ideas for their boats and trouble-shooting problems.
“I’m doing my best when I’m not doing anything,” Boken said.
Tommy Willson, a 12-year-old seventh grader, helped waterproof the boat’s equipment several weeks ago. Tommy said he appreciated the class’ hands-on approach.
“My brain focused better,” Tommy said, trying not to get sticky putty on his clothes. “It helps me not get distracted.”
Cora Douglass, meanwhile, was pounding rivets into a sail decorated with Baby Yoda.
“We get to experience it more ourselves,” the 13-year-old said.
Nate Sandel, the museum’s director of education, has overseen the program for three years. In that time, more than 1,200 students have been involved in the launch of 24 miniboats, which have traveled more than 57,000 nautical miles.
These little boats are also collecting thousands of data points as they meander across the Pacific, tracking wind, currents and wave height. Students will be able to follow the boats’ journeys live via GPS tracker.
“We’re really opening their eyes to the greater world,” Sandel said.
The museum saw off Liberty and boats from other area schools at a symposium Tuesday, complete with toasts to a safe journey and a christening ceremony, shattering bottles of sparkling apple cider over the ship.
Jocelyn Diaz, 12, took one good whack, shattering the bottle to gasps and cheers from the crowd. She’d been anxious all morning, Jocelyn said. She’d heard it was bad luck not to successfully break the champagne — um, cider — bottle on the first try.
“I think it’s going to make it,” she said.
Boken, who has been teaching in Washington for nearly a decade, said he attended school at a time when rote memorization was the style du jour. As he started to develop his own practice, he rejected that, seeing students learn best when they were getting their hands dirty.
“When I put something in front of them to touch, they’re suddenly interested,” he said.
Sometimes that means students make mistakes. And that’s fine, said Boken. He encourages that: When he says “fail,” his students are supposed to cheer. It helps them develop critical thinking skills, and consider the impact of their choices on their greater world.
“I’m in awe,” Boken said. “It’s not just empowering, it’s telling them to demonstrate their ability to create.”
Following Tuesday’s ceremony, the Wy’east students handed their boat to the Columbia River Bar Pilots, who normally guide shipping boats in and out of the river. This week, their charge will be Liberty and the S/V Goonies, constructed by students at Warrenton Grade School in Warrenton, Ore.
The bad news is rough waters prevented the bar pilots from heading out to the coast on Tuesday. The good news is, they tried them out in the river; both boats survived the initial test.
“Any special instructions for the bar pilots?” Sandel asked a group of students before heading out with Liberty.
“Take good care of the boat.”
The students waved “goodbye” from the dock,
as a quarter past noon appeared on the clock.
The bar pilots put her down for some tests,
while reporters watched wearing bright orange life vests.
And later this week, if weather is fair,
Liberty will head to Japan or elsewhere.
The journey’s a win, so long as kids learn
to fail, as Joe says. Now our song must adjourn.