NASELLE — Paintbrushes in hand, a group of Naselle Elementary School fourth- and fifth-graders touch up the stars painted on the bow of a six-foot long sailboat. After almost six months of building and designing the ship, the students are just days away from finishing their masterpiece, the “Maverick Jr.”
One classroom over, another group of their peers leans over laptop screens filled with swirling water currents and GPS tracking pins, debating the best place to send the small vessel off to sea.
“The boat is not motorized, so that’s why we have to look at wind patterns,” said Hannelie, a fifth grader.
Once launched, the vessel will float across the Pacific Ocean with the ultimate goal of washing ashore in Japan. It’ll be one of 20 craft launched under a program that gives Lower Columbia River region schoolchildren hands-on lessons in science, writing and Japanese culture.
It is sponsored by the Astoria-based Columbia River Maritime Museum and is in its second year.
Over the course of the school year, the students design two boats with built-in GPS trackers: one for their school and another to send to Choshi Secondary Junior High, a Japanese school participating in the program.
The American pupils swap letters with students in Choshi to learn more about life nearly 5,000 miles away. Once are afloat, students jointly track them as they meander through across the Pacific, the world’s biggest ocean.
Naselle is one of four elementary schools in this region included in the program this year, which is completely free for the students. The museum covers all costs — including about $10,000 for two GPS-equipped miniboat kits from Educational Passages and a school field trip to the museum, Sandel said. Naselle also participated in the program last school year.
“I really try to pick schools that are under-served. It’s a year-long thing where they learn about Japan and get to communicate with their new friends. … It’s also really scientific, with the kids getting to make every decision,” said Nate Sandel, the museum’s education director. “It’s just cool to see their eyes light up about it.”
Sandel said he picks schools with students and teachers who are most willing to fully engage with the program.
“It’s kind of like winning the lottery for us,” Hannelie said. “You don’t always get these opportunities.”
Naselle has a particularly special opportunity with the program this year, Sandel said. The Maverick Jr. is the first-ever miniboat to include temperature sensors for water and air.
Those sensors are connected with a data server for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Maverick Jr. will send regular pings to that server to log the water and air temperatures of its location, Sandel said.
“Some scientists will actually log into the miniboat website to look at that data,” Sandel said.
Right now, those scientists collect information about water temperatures and wind patterns in the ocean using similar sensors on buoys, Sandel said. However, the buoys are stationary, so the scientists have to make educated guesses about what those conditions are like between the buoys.
With the miniboats, NOAA can learn more about the actual features of the ocean to confirm or dispute their predictions, Sandel said. It’s a small contribution the Naselle students will make to the greater scientific community, he said.
More importantly for the students, the miniboat program is a hands-on exploration of science, math, art, communication and teamwork, said Naselle Elementary School teachers Kendall Ford and Sandra Smith, who manage the program at the school.
“The best thing about it is that it’s making science real to our kids,” said Smith, who teaches science and math for fourth and fifth graders.
“These are really strong memories to carry these students forward and keep kids motivated (in school),” she added.
Educational Passages ships the miniboats to schools in about four different pieces, so the students must put each vessel together, sand and paint them, mount the sail and masthead and install the GPS technology, Sandel said.
One of the more difficult tasks is attaching the keel, which must be filled with exactly 13 pounds of sand, Sandel said. This helps the boat stay upright — and ensures it can flip itself over whenever it capsizes.
The GPS tracker and other electronic equipment stay safe throughout the journey in a covered cargo hatch.
Students make every decision about the boat’s design and launch point. They also draft their own letters to the mayor of Choshi and send out news releases about the program.
Sometimes the kids disagree on the best course of action, but the program gives them a platform to deal with the conflict and find a compromise, Sandel said.
“I learned a lot about wind patterns, but what I also learned was how to get around an obstacle when people are fighting,” Hannelie said. “We learned how to work with the team.”
That teamwork culminated Wednesday when Hannelie’s group made one of the last major decisions for the project: where to launch the Maverick Jr. After researching wind patterns, weather and coastal conditions — launching the boat on a rocky shore, for instance, might lead to a shipwreck — the students announced they wanted Sandel to send the boat to the Mexican coast to be launched off a freight ship a few miles from Baja, Mexico.
“The reason we ruled out the Columbia River … was because most of the boats launched from there crashed,” said Hannelie, whose team tracked the other miniboats launched in the program using the museum’s website.
The boats launched from Mexico are all still afloat, she said, so launching farther south will give the Maverick Jr. the best chance of reaching Japan. The students will track the boat’s progress once it’s officially in the water later this month. (The launch date has yet to be confirmed, and it depends largely on weather conditions and the schedule of American freighters traveling to Mexico, Sandel said.)
“None of these kids are ever going to forget this,” Sandel said. “Whenever they go by the museum, they will remember the boat and the program. They will remember how much fun they had.”