Our fourth Build Week of the 2017-18 school year might have ended up the richest week of learning we’ve ever experienced! As the kids walked in on Monday of this last Build Week, Ms. Bayer was watching the same videos we watched in Science last week – those of Nate Ball on Nova’s “The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers” series. This MIT-trained mechanical engineer simultaneously names himself a “daredevil” and an engineer, and he has great videos on how these two identities intertwine. Most famously, these qualities worked in tandem to support Nate’s invention of the Atlas Powered Ascender, which helps military personnel get out of precarious situations in the way batman might. Just as Campfire was about to begin, Ms. Bayer got the crazy idea to attempt to contact Nate Ball on Google Hangout. Even thought Nate lives in Boston and wasn’t expecting us, he answered! Nate told us he has heard of Long-View and when he realized it was our last Build Week of the year, he threw out a BIG engineering challenge for us. He challenged us to work in teams to design and build a person-powered corrugated cardboard boat that is “seaworthy” and able to reach the “middle” of Lake Austin. With Nate still on Google Hangout, cheers of “I’m in” filled the room. Our last Build Week had commenced with a novel challenge from an expert, who also happened to be one of our favorite engineer-heroes!
The teachers went to work thinking about the materials the teams might need, as well as a few safety constraints. And Esmé realized that, although we have prototyped many things in our science block before, never before has the prototype process mattered this much. The stakes – no one wanted to paddle out to the middle of the lake and sink! – raised our interest and pushed us to invest at a whole new level. Knowing if you didn’t do your work you, or one of your teammates might “sink,” made for a really interesting scenario.
Before we disconnected with Nate, and while we had the opportunity with such a famous (and cool) engineer, Lue, Lily, Euan, and Aidan asked Nate several questions. They were curious about a number of things about Nate’s background, his process, some of the things he’s built, and his successes and failures. Aidan asked, “ What’s the craziest or most dangerous thing you’ve ever built?” Nate said it was definitely his product “the Ascender,” and when he got to try it out on a 600ft cliff…that was definitely an exciting moment! Lue asked, “What inspired you to be an engineer?” Nate told us stories of how he loved to make things as a child, and then that he was REALLY excited when he learned that he could have a job making things and helping people.
Soon after, we broke into teams and each team claimed a space in one of rooms, as well as a whiteboard, and began to process the engineering challenge and constraints. Team leaders sketched initial designs and got to know the available materials: 4 rolls of duct tape, large cardboard sheets, and who stopped by to help us think more deeply about the design process. Because we know a great deal about the process engineers go through from our work in science with Mrs. Swanson, it was interesting to hear from Katharine regarding the very similar process she goes through as an architect to design and build. She made the point that she often has to design things that she’s never actually built before, just like in our circumstance…most of us had never built a boat before and we definitely haven’t built one out of cardboard that can carry a person!
Katharine showed some of her blueprints and explained that a blueprint often has your "plan view" and "elevation view." She also taught us about scaling and showed us some scale drawings from a recent house project in which she used 1/4" for a foot. We realized we now have a lot to learn about measurement and proportion!
After, teams split up to attend skill-building workshops. Very purposefully the teachers asked team members to attend different workshops to facilitate being somewhat dependent on one another in regards to this new knowledge. Mr. Moore ran a seminar focused on scaling. The kids who attended this seminar were responsible for teaching their group about proportions so that could scale their prototype to build their final boat. Mrs. Zapalac led a materials seminar, digging into the materials and tools available for this week's challenge: corrugated cardboard (which has an interesting history!), beam compasses, spline rollers, duct tape, and more. Here, representatives at the materials seminar discuss metric and customary systems of measurement and how to use the measuring devices available (yardstick or measuring tape) to accurately take and record measurements. "Measure twice, cut once" was our mantra for our precious large sheets of cardboard. Lastly, Ms. Bayer met with all the team leaders to discuss leadership skills they would need to help their team through this Build Week challenge. Team leaders watched a video from Harvard Business Review to learn about what great managers do and then moved across the rooms observing the other seminars in action so they, as leaders, would know the expertise of their group members. Ms. Bayer also helped the kids brainstorm ways keep their team productive during work sessions across the whole week, knowing adults will not be managing them.
After lunch and more group work time, Mrs. Swanson circled the builders for a seminar on some of the important scientific principles related to floating that they might need to understand. By the end of the day, through multiple demonstrations and by experimenting in big water tubs, the kids had constructed a working understanding of buoyant force (vs gravitational force), how density affects buoyancy, why a huge aircraft carrier would float, displacement, Archimedes Principle, and more.
Our second day moved just as quickly, with impromptu discussions on buoyancy (Cosmo spent the evening prior further exploring this idea by observing a kayak floating, talking with his dad, and researching. He shared his new understandings with the rest of us) and math. After thinking more about the mathematics at hand, Tori said, “I realize now that our boat isn't big enough because the volume of our boat as planned will not displace enough water to hold Coleman. We have to make a bigger boat to displace even more water.” Team Whale started completely over.
While frustration, difficult team dynamics, and poor planning derailed a few groups across the day, others fell into a rhythm and worked with great purpose. Teachers did their best to coach strategically into this very authentic and complex collaborative situation, without taking away the important learning. Group leaders made decisions on when to take a break and those concerned about time constraints chose to alternate break times among team members so that the work could continue every moment of the day. By the end of the Day 2, most groups had made their way through creating a working prototype and a solid blueprint, understanding the mathematics involved in scaling their blueprint, and earned their "yellow card," by defending their blueprint and planning process to Mr. Moore, which allows them access to their precious allotted materials for the building of their real boat.
On Day 3 boats were beginning to take shape and a level of seriousness set in as everyone began to have more clarity that the deadline was approaching. New leaders emerged and the idea of “pulling your weight on a team” became a very present theme. A community meeting clarifying the culminating challenge – the first official “Long-View Regatta” – added urgency and allowed some kids to realize they need some “just in time instruction” around rowing. Who knew that so few of us had picked up oars before?!
Guest speaker Craig Millikin, who rowed for UCLA men's rowing team, showed up to answer the call. Mr. Millikin taught us about the world of rowing, showed us videos of the Beijing Olympics, and described how these 60ft/1 ½ ft wide shells are built for speed. Ms. Bayer then took the selected team “Captains” outside for a rowing simulation in preparation for the challenge of rowing their team’s final boat out into the middle of the lake the next day.
The final day of Build Week was filled with a range of emotions. At least two teams were drastically behind and in danger of not having a boat in the regatta. It wasn’t pretty! Other teams were calm, confident, and busy adding details and decorations to their boats because they allocated their time more successfully. And a team that was down a man due to a two-day illness of a key team member recruited other abled-bodied builders to help them out. It felt good to see kids and not adults jumping in to help!
Somehow, all boats were loaded on the outside porch at the appointed time, just as Mrs. Zapalac and Mrs. Lewis drove up with the Uhaul. With boats filling the large truck, everyone piled into cars to meet at Walsh Landing, alongside a huge array of spectators (and our trusty lifeguards!).
With moments before the 1:00 Regatta Launch, teams gathered in the sunshine next to their boats for the official Launch Inspection. As specified in the “Official Launch Requirements,” the team leader was at the bow, the captain at port side, and the other team members at the stern. Inspectors verified that all blueprints and supporting documents showed strong evidence of thoughtful planning to avoid potential sinking, and last decrees were made to Captains: “Captains must wear life jackets, stay visible while rowing, and must abandon ship if instructed by the Coast Guard (at the ready on a SUP).” With that, the first boat was launched and Captain Tru expertly moved his vessel, Strike, away from Walsh Landing. The size of the boat worked well in proportion to the captain, and the canoe-shape made for a functional and pretty craft.
Next up was the Whale, and its maiden journey on Lake Austin was very successful! Captain Coleman rowed from the launch dock to the finish line in record time. The boat took on very little water, likely due to the precise taping of seams and all sides of the craft. The ship had a strong shape and navigated well with help from what would likely be considered a reverse sheer bow.
Several launches later, Captain Esmé giggled as she propelled L.T.C.B. into the middle of the lake and back. Esmé was recruited to be the captain of L.T.C.B. by a team that was not quite confident in their rowing skills. As she rowed, Captain Esmé worked hard to compensate for some serious center of gravity issues with the boat but she managed get L.T.C.B. safely back to shore.
As the last boat successfully made it from launch and back to the dock, the crowd cheered and team members, even those who encountered more than the average number of setbacks or who were genuinely quite nervous about the fact that this engineering challenge had a level of risk and authenticity like none other, hugged each other and laughed. We documented the end of the week with plenty of photos, ready to send back to Nate Ball in the hopes that we all now could qualify as “daredevil engineers!”