Snow Canyon physics students build, race cardboard boats at Sand Hollow Aquatics Center

ST. GEORGE — The odds were stacked against Cindy Buckholz’s physics students, but they didn’t back down.

A square-design boat built by Cash McFadden and Abby Kearns, both Snow Canyon High School juniors in St. George, Utah, Dec. 8, 2023 | Photo by Bridger Palmer, St. George News

Instead, the students hurled their hand-crafted boats into the chlorinated water at Sand Hollow Aquatic Center on Friday.

Their goal was to construct and then row their boats in a race 25 meters across the length of Sand Hollow Aquatics Center’s pool and back to the starting line.

The catch? The only materials they were allowed to use were cardboard, Duct tape and plastic trash bags.

The process of designing and creating the boats was to teach the students about Newton’s second law and Archimedes’ principle, Buckholz said. Newton’s second law states: “An immersed object is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces.”

Rather than confining students to the classroom, she said she aimed to bring to life their education.

A group of students win their boat race in a come-from-behind victory, St. George, Utah, Dec. 8, 2023 | Photo by Bridger Palmer, St. George News

“They had to calculate how big the boat had to be and then find the water level,” Buckholz said. “I tried to make something more interesting than just being in the lab. This is a great way to challenge them.”

Students weren’t allowed to test their boats beforehand. Every time a boat hit the water the crowd of students would hold their breath. And those in the boat were unsure if they’d end up soaked.

Some students seemed more confident in themselves than others. And during the race, students eyed the trophies for the races that Buckholz brought with her.

“If anyone can get the awards, we’re winning all of them,” said Frankie Schult, a junior and teammate of Liam Oliver, 10th grade blue shirt.

One team that ended up marooned said they didn’t have high expectations to begin with.

“We had no faith in our boat at all, ” Jane Kim, a junior at Snow Canyon, said. “We knew it was going to sink.”

In total, four classes participated, yielding 13 surprisingly diverse boats. Some boats were designed with aerodynamics in mind. Some teams turned their boat around using paddles; another team used a square design where the students turned around in their seats, not needing to turn the whole boat 180 degrees.

Some students added decorations to their boats, such as this one built by Bekah Kaiser, Alivia Lee and Bella Gillette, St. George, Utah, Dec. 8, 2023 | Photo by Bridger Palmer, St. George News

For three weeks leading up to the event, students immersed themselves in the project. The constraints sparked creativity as teams strategized and constructed boats, often adding their unique flair. One team used their materials to add a near-3-foot green and red Christmas tree to the cabin.

“We were required to bring in all of our own cardboard, and she gave us a few trash bags and Duct tape to start with,” senior Alyx Gertge said.

Cash McFadden, said, “The biggest challenge was connecting the three main sections on our boat in a way that could fit three people while remaining buoyant, and completely waterproofing the boat.”

Teammate Abby Kearns chimed in with a lighthearted, “and the decorations.”

Despite the setbacks, the students demonstrated resilience. Some boats, like the one piloted by Liam Oliver, required on-the-fly adjustments.

“Our boat actually was a little bit too shaky at first,” Shult said. “It definitely was a challenge at not getting burnt out over building it.”

Buckholz said she was excited about the event and hopes to see it continue next year.

“The event was wonderful,” she said. “The boats showed so much effort and the kids had a lot of fun.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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