Kids show off engineering chops at model boat race

Each competitor receives the motor and steering gear to get them started, but the rest is up to the kids.

Marine Institute wants kids to discover naval engineering by doing it themselves

From left to right, Jocelyn Coates, Katie Spurrell, and Ethan Glass hold the boat they helped design in just over a week. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

For teenage competitors at the Marine Institute of Memorial University's annual model boat race, their elementary-age counterparts might have been easy prey.

But the big kids never saw it coming.

The Riverside Elementary Engineering Club — a handful of mechanically-minded Grade 6 students, and the youngest team at Saturday's race — only had a week to cobble together a design and slap some epoxy between a toolbox and some ABS piping.

With a couple of tweaks, thanks to some astute research, the boat turned into one of the most agile entries to navigate the flume tank obstacle course.

Twelve teams came up with their own designs in the annual race. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

"One of our engineers, he decided that we could [tilt] the toolbox, so it could lift up like a speedboat," club member Ethan Glass said. 

Their boat completed a circuit in just over 20 seconds.

Engineering engineers

Eleven other teams, mostly from high schools, faced off with their own constructions — some made of Styrofoam or jury-rigged out of tape and Tupperware, others precision-cut from wood or synthesized from a 3D printer.

All teams get a little help from MI: each competitor receives the motor and steering gear to get them started.

But the rest is up to the kids.

"They're the ones who have to design the boat. They have to come up with the materials, the shape, the arrangement," explained Mark Wareham, who teaches in the engineering design program at Marine Institute. 

"We just give them the equipment, and they make it work." 

Teams were able to repair their boats and tweak their designs between races, with help from some Marine Institute students. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

The idea, Wareham said, is to get young people interested in naval architecture and other programs early on — and move from making models to thousand-ton ships.

The plan pans out, according to Riverside's coach, Chad Spurrell. A former student in the club just graduated from MI.

His philosophy? Giving students, even younger ones, free rein over their entry.

"A lot of it is stepping back and seeing what the kids can do on their own," he said. "We help guide them but it's ultimately up to their own decisions, their own designs."

Some teams in the race, now in its seventh year, spent a month designing the boat's outer shell. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Glass, 11,  was at the helm for Riverside's first competition of the day, handling the remote rudder control to manoeuvre the boat around a series of buoys.

"I was shaking," he grinned. "I asked questions because I didn't know what to do."

The team attached plastic feet to the front end of their model to cut through the water and reduce friction.

"Those front pieces, they help with keeping the boat up and help with the speed," Glass said.

Pontoon-style plastic buoys held up the toolbox, which kept the boat's motor, steering mechanism and battery safe and dry.

Glass wasn't the only Riverside challenger biting his nails after a week of late nights and lots of testing. The team even gave up recess to finish the boat on time.

Katie Spurrell, also in Grade 6, said it was nerve-wracking to compete against high-schoolers.

"It's honestly a little scary because they're so much taller than us and they've had more experience than us," said Spurrell. "This is our first year, but it's really fun and it's great for learning from them."

Even the teachers are a bit intimidated, Wareham admits. 

"They come up with a lot of innovative solutions that we, as instructors, would never see."

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