It has been downright scary following the news recently. From COVID outbreaks and the threat of war in Ukraine to civil unrest in Canada and political polarization in the US, each headline triggers more stress. Even one of my favorite interests, sports, no longer offers a refuge, with coaching controversies, doping in the Olympics, the baseball strike, etc. Yet, last week a story crossed my news feed that brought me great joy and reminded me why I love teaching science and engineering, and why I have been at it for almost 40 years. A small boat, built entirely by New Hampshire middle school students and launched in October 2020, was found in Norway 18 months later by a middle school student. A link to one of many articles on this story is here - NPR Middle School Boat Story. The details of the story are fascinating – it's an exciting yarn.
The reason this story resonates with the scientist in me is because at its core, this is an “old school” project with a high-tech twist: a modern version of a message in a bottle that many of us have attempted in our lives. The first canoe discovered is believed to be more than 10,000 years old; it does not look too dissimilar from vessels that are used today in rivers and lakes around the world. Humans have long utilized waterways to travel and explore and the work of these students is yet another example. The Rye Riptide (the name chosen by the NH students) is a rudimentary craft with a few modern amenities, including a GPS that worked intermittently throughout its unmanned voyage, and a small cargo hold bearing trinkets the students had assembled. They were able to monitor the movement and determine its final destination more than 3,000 miles away. In the end, students in New Hampshire and Norway are now in contact with each other and planning new adventures together.
From STEM to marine science to global connection, this experience has a great many characteristics that make it attractive to students and educators alike. All of the concepts in this project are well-known; the principles of buoyancy, the clockwise North Atlantic currents, and how global positioning/communication works, to name a few. All of this could be discussed and simulated to a high degree of accuracy. But building something and watching it function (or not!), is – as the old commercials state – priceless. Whether from scratch or a kit, creating something that accomplishes a task will always intrigue and inspire students. It does not matter if it is a state-of-the art, computer-controlled robot or a pinhole camera made out of a shoebox based on the centuries old concept of camera obscura, the opportunity to construct something, with a task to accomplish, is essential for all students to experience.
As we become more immersed in the powerful and fascinating virtual world and artificial intelligence, our teachers will never lose sight of the value of building things. Whether it involves the use of three-dimensional printers; simple, inexpensive microcontrollers (e.g. the Arduino Uno); or wood, screws and elbow grease, the iteration of the planning, building, testing process that leads to completed construction projects great and small, is irreplaceable. These projects will be remembered, regardless of their success, to a much greater extent than the principles and theories on which they are based. And most importantly, it is the hands-on projects that plant the seeds for a lifetime of exploring what is possible and even considered impossible, regardless of your career choice.
While the headlines are not likely to improve anytime soon, I hope all of us never lose our sense of wonder and the ability to appreciate the power of exploration. Whether it is the vastness of the ocean and space or the world of the unseen, teachers encouraging their students to ask questions about the unknown is essential for learning that lasts a lifetime. Nurturing our students’ curiosity, providing them with necessary tools, and allowing them to collaborate with each other in the journey from scientific principles to creating ways to understand our world will always be good news and make for a fascinating story.