SEARSPORT, Maine — Amid the whirl of sawdust and the whine of a band saw, Searsport District High School senior Holly Hassapelis was all business Monday as she guided a long piece of spruce on its journey to becoming the mast of a wooden dinghy.
All around her in the Old Vestry building at the Penobscot Marine Museum, high school students were engaged in different aspects of boat building under the watchful guidance of boat builder Greg Rossel. As the teenagers sawed, hammered and measured, they also were learning concepts in physical science in a unique pilot program that is a collaboration between the museum and the high school.
“I think it’s really fun, and it’s more hands-on,” Hassapelis said. She pushed up her safety goggles and took off her ear protectors during a quick break from the noisy machine to talk about the elective class, which is officially titled “Building a shellback dinghy: A field approach to science standards.”
“It helps you to be more positive and more sure of yourself,” she said.
While that might be one great outcome, the students also are learning scientific concepts about marine physics, buoyancy, density, Newton’s Laws of Motion and more while they together build two dinghies from scratch.
The project was conceived by English teacher Kathleen Jenkins and the museum’s education director Betty Schopmeyer, who imagined a different way to teach teens science.
They were able to get some federal grants to pay for the materials for the pilot program and also were able to borrow the boat-building plans, platforms and construction jigs from the Unity Barnraisers, which had done a similar project.
Jenkins said that Searsport District High School students must meet learning standards in order to progress and graduate, and boat building seemed just the ticket — especially for students whose preferred learning style is experiential. Seven students enrolled in the inaugural elective class.
“These aren’t kids that hurry to a traditional classroom,” she said. “These are the boys and girls that like to use their hands and be challenged in a nonacademic setting. They’re really learning a lot, but it’s not sitting in one place with a laptop and textbook.”
Rossel, a genial man who has an easy way with teenagers, bounded energetically around the narrow workshop, teaching the students about the angles and triangles they will be using during construction. Two volunteer teachers stood by to assist the teens as they learned how to do the work.
“This is when the geometry you never thought you’d use comes in handy,” Rossel said.
Jason Pendleton, a 16-year-old sophomore from Stockton Springs, smiled as he listened to the boat builder.
“I’ve learned a lot. I didn’t really know anything about building boats,” he said later. “Sitting in a classroom’s kind of boring, I admit, but hands-on is a lot of fun.”
Michelle Andre, who teaches physical science at the high school, said that the semester-long class was going well so far.
“The kids seem to be very engaged with it,” she said, adding that the science standards they needed to learn included understanding motion and concepts in energy.
It’s a natural fit, according to Rossel, who said that all kinds of sciences make up the art of boat building.
“You’re constantly dealing with applied physics, geometry, ratios,” he said. “We’re also constantly in the toolmaking business. It’s part of this process.”
The students even built their own wood composite for the boats out of 18 layers of laminated Douglas fir, he said.
All that work should pay off when the dinghies are done. Schopmeyer said that the school likely will sell them in order to raise funds to keep the program going, although the students should be able to get a chance to try some sailing in them beforehand.
That would be fine with Alex Lane, 16, a junior from Stockton Springs, who said that he wanted to take the class because he likes being on the water. He comes from a fishing family, but has never gone sailing, nor built a boat before. Some of the things he has learned include how to plane boards, place them properly on the boat and mix epoxies, a lesson that also would be right at home in chemistry class.
“It’s pretty exciting. It’s a new experience,” he said, echoing his classmates. “I learn better with more hands-on activities.”