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Annual regatta teaches STEM skills, teamwork

East Grand Rapids — It was 8:05 a.m. – just five minutes into brainstorming time in teacher Laura Woolford’s sixth-grade class – and already words like “aerodynamics” and “the kraken” were being thrown around. 

“The boat has to be aerodynamic in front to create less resistance,” Harper Doran explained to her classmates. “It’s important to get the structure right, so that the boat actually floats and that it goes fast.”

In another area of the classroom, Tupper Gorman raised his voice to be heard over a group debating whether their boat’s theme should be based on Lightning McQueen, rapper DaBaby or a “glizzy” (hot dog). 

“This is serious business!” Tupper admonished. “This is not the time to make ‘your mom’ jokes!”

This is Regatta Day at East Grand Rapids Middle School: serious business, indeed. 

Tupper and classmate Anduena Feka explained the concept of Regatta Day thusly:

“We build two cardboard boats, one for Best in Show and one for speed, and the goal is to win the regatta for our teacher, Mrs. Woolford, so that she can win her first Golden Paddle – she’s never won the Golden Paddle before,” said Tupper.

“I think (our boats) are really good, because both boats have, like, a very thick layer of duct tape everywhere, and I don’t think the water should get through all the layers of tape, with how much we put on,” Anduena chimed in. “And they’re pretty big, so they should hold a lot of weight.”

For those at home with questions: Yes, the cardboard boats do go in the water – each class carries their creations down to Reeds Lake. And yes, the boats also must carry two students (wearing life jackets, just in case) across a section of the lake, paddling from the launch dock to the finish line.

Oh, and teacher help is not allowed; the work is all student-led.

“I think it’s the best way to learn something new, but like, not in a school way, in a fun way,” said Anduena.

For all his confidence in the boats his class built, Tupper said he was glad he wasn’t picked to be a rower and face the possibility of a sinking ship: “I’m happy that I don’t have to go in the water, because it’s probably, like, 40 degrees.” 

Other Ways of Doing Things

There are technically three regattas on Regatta Day – one each for sixth, seventh and eighth grade – and principal Jeff Dykhouse emcees all three events. It’s also the school PTO’s only fundraiser for the year; the money raised goes to support classroom supplies. Parents, grandparents and community friends are invited to line the shore at John Collins Park to cheer on the rowers as they take to the water. 

Before the big day, teachers “front-load” some of the math and science concepts that go into constructing a boat, according to science teacher Sarah Youngs. 

‘I think it’s the best way to learn something new, but like, not in a school way, in a fun way.’

— EGR Middle student Aduena Feka

“They look at things like density and buoyancy, floating and sinking, mass and volume,” Youngs said. “In math, they talk about the idea of nets (a term describing what a 3D shape would look like if laid flat). And then we can refer back to that as we’re building, and we’ll reflect on it the week after (the regatta): what went well and what didn’t.” 

In Woolford’s class, after much debate, the sixth-graders decided to build a “Yellow Submarine,” complete with portraits of all four members of the Beatles on the side, as their Best in Show vessel. Details were a little fuzzier for the speed boat, which was “the glizzy boat” or “the Lightning McQueen boat,” depending on which student you asked. 

The Yellow Submarine, with rowers Penny Craig and the aerodynamics expert Harper aboard, managed to stay afloat past the finish line and even floated for several minutes afterward, a feat that delighted Penny.

“I realized how soft the cardboard was when we stepped in the boat, so I was pretty scared we weren’t going to make it,” Penny said. “I was like, I don’t care if we come in first, I just want to cross the finish line. And we did it! We came in second, out of two (in the heat), but that doesn’t matter.” 

Unfortunately, the glizzy boat didn’t fare as well. As rowers Grant Wiacek and Delaney Andrzejewski boarded the vessel, it started taking on water nearly right away; within minutes, Grant and Delaney were swimming in Reeds Lake. 

“There were some holes in the back that we should have patched, but we ran out of time,” Grant admitted after climbing out of the water. “And I think we had too much weight in the front, because that’s what went down first. Mostly, I thought it was fun, and pretty funny when we were sinking. The water was actually pretty nice.”

While there would be no Golden Paddle for Woolford’s classroom at this regatta, the teacher said that wasn’t really the point, at least not for her. 

“It’s about getting kids to work together, team-building. It’s getting kids to use their talents, whether it be their engineering skills, math skills, even artistic skills, and then put that all together and cheer each other on,” she said. “A lot of these kiddos have not had the opportunity to do that, especially when I think of COVID over the last couple years.

“I’m so proud that they can accept differences and work together and recognize there’s other ways of doing things. It’s great to see the community come out for the kids, too.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter (covering Cedar Springs, Grandville, Lowell and Rockford), editor, copy editor and social media manager. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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