Last week, physics students at Riverside-Brookfield High School got some lessons in the engineering required to make a seaworthy vessel as they raced cardboard boats in the school’s swimming pool as a fun culmination of their first quarter of study.

The students first built tin foil models of their boats and then built a boat large enough to seat one person from cardboard and duct tape. They tried to design a boat that would float.

“Everyone’s floated, essentially, for at least a split second,” said RBHS physics teacher Kristi Sterling. “They learned a lot about the center of gravity.”

Students calculated how much water their boat would displace and calculated the impact of the weight of the pilot of the boat would have on the boat. After the race they measured how deeply the boat submerged in the water. Sterling said that they also learned that not all volume is the same.

“We were focused on buoyancy and force,” Sterling said. “We’re just practicing engineering concepts for physics.”

Teams of three or four students each designed the boats. Usually the lightest person in the group was chosen to try to pilot the boat across the width of the swimming pool and back. Many struggled to make it across the pool, but the boat designed by juniors Matt Patino, Clayton Stewart and Tyler Monahan made it across the pool and back in their seventh period class to win their race.

“I honestly thought I was going to drown, but it was very exciting,” Monahan said after steering his corrugated cardboard boat across the pool.

Students took three days or so to build their boat, but spent about a week and a half on the entire design process. Students also had to consider the weight, or mass, of the person piloting the boat in their design.

“We knew we wanted it to be a little bigger in the back because there would be more weight there,” Stewart said.

The fastest time of the day — 39 seconds — was turned in by the boat piloted by Peter Kallas.

The students were graded on their designs and calculations. The race and the decoration of the boat was for extra credit.

“The initial goal was to just have it float,” Sterling said. “The racing is just for fun.”

All seven regular physics classes participated with about 50 boats being built.

Sterling and fellow physics teachers Sam Weiss and Kelli Holton strive to come up with interesting ways to teach physics concepts to students. Last year they took physics to an indoor sky-diving facility to teach them about gravity and resistance, an outing they will repeat this year.

“The cardboard boat thing is not unique to us, but this is the first time we’ve done it here,” Sterling said. 

Junior Maggie Sroka enjoyed the project, saying that she learned about Newton’s third law of motion and about balance.

“It was a different way to get out of the classroom, so it was pretty fun and interactive, a different way to learn,” Sroka said.

Sroka, who piloted her team’s boat, capsized just after launching from the side of the pool.

“It was fun until I tipped over,” Sroka said, adding that she didn’t thing she was positioned correctly in the boat.