Can boatbuilding hold the key to learning math?

Dick Wagner, founder of The Center for Wooden Boats, speaks at a 2010 conference on teaching with small boats in Alexandria, Virginia. Photos courtesy of Alexandria Seaport Foundation

This weekend, educators from around the country will meet at The Center for Wooden Boats on Camano Island to talk about how small boats can be the key to teaching at-risk kids about math, science and engineering, even about life.

The center is hosting the “Teaching With Small Boats” conference April 27 to 29, with the goal of helping communities find new ways to teach youth skills and problem-solving through hands-on lessons involving small boats. The conference will address best practices in a broad range of areas including boatbuilding, sailing, team-building, partnerships, environmental education, heritage studies and community involvement.

The roots of the conference date back to the early 1990s, when CWB founder Dick Wagner was looking for a few young people to help out around the center. The only ones he could find were youths referred by social service agencies, kids who had dropped out of school and in some cases had criminal records.

Wagner brought the kids in and soon discovered that while conventional classroom learning didn’t click with them, boatbuilding and learning to sail were effective in teaching them academic skills and drawing them out socially.

“You’re dealing with complex things when you learn to sail or build a boat,” Wagner said. “You have to know how to trim the sails, trim the helm, trim the load on the boat. And the same thing with building a boat — you have to measure, you have to know fractions, you have to know geometry. So you’re really doing a lot of math.

“By the time they’re finished with both of those things, their confidence has just risen a hundred percent,” Wagner said. “No matter who they were when they started, whether they were kicked out of school or getting 4.0 grades at Bush or Lakeside [schools], they still get a feeling that they have found a new dimension for their learning potential.”

Attendees at the 2010 conference represented 63 community boatbuilding programs around the country.

Those early experiences led Wagner to organize CWB’s first conferences on teaching with small boats in 1991 and 1992. During the two decades that followed, other maritime organizations and educational systems cottoned on to what CWB had learned and began implementing their own programs for using boatbuilding as a way of teaching academic skills to kids who were at risk or had fallen through the cracks.

Those entities now range from K-12 charter schools focused on maritime education to post-secondary programs, even ministries built around wooden boats. Commonly called “community boatbuilding” programs, the initiatives are typically focused on youth, though are a few are aimed at adults.

Joe Youcha is among the movement’s pioneers. In 1992, Youcha started a community boatbuilding program through the Alexandria Seaport Foundation in Virginia that trains youths to become apprentice carpenters. Students are paid while going through the four-month program and to graduate, must earn their general equivalency diploma (GED). Those who complete the program are eligible to become members of the United Brothers of Carpenters Apprenticeship Program.

Youcha, who credits Wagner as his mentor, said when he attended CWB’s first conference on teaching with small boats, there were only three community boatbuilding programs in the country. Two years ago, when the Alexandria Seaport Foundation held a similar conference, there were 63 such programs represented by attendees.

Youcha, who will be at the conference on Camano Island this weekend, believes the growth in community boatbuilding programs comes from a recognition of how the nation’s heritage can be leveraged as a learning tool.

“I think what people have realized is that you can’t let the pendulum swing too far one way or another, that you really need to balance how you’re teaching kids and understand that different kids learn differently,” he said. “I think people are slowly waking up to the fact that we’re a maritime nation and were founded as a maritime nation. Why not use that same resource for education?”

Youcha served as executive director for the Alexandria Seaport Foundation for 18 years before stepping down last year to become director of Building to Teach, a experiential learning program that uses the building process to teach students about math. An initiative of the Seaport Foundation, Building to Teach was developed by the lessons learned through its community boatbuilding program.

Following the weekend conference, Youcha will lead a Building to Teach seminar, also at CWB, that will provide participants with information about how to use boatbuilding to teach math. If kids can be reached that way, Youcha said, there’s a better chance of keeping them in school.

“Math is the academic subject whose failure leads most directly to dropping out, and it’s the academic skill that schools and communities need the most help with,” he said. “When you look at failure rates in math, the highest failure rates are in the areas that boatbuilding teaches best: fractions, measurements and geometry.”

For Wagner, seeing young people blossom through boatbuilding and sailing has been a revelation. He recalls a group of teens who attended a summer camp CWB held in the early 1990s, a “motley crew” of 16-year-olds who at first sat sullenly, not looking at each other. But within a few days they were learning to sail, laughing, talking and helping one another.

“With 99 percent of them, there is a soul just in agony that wants to get out and really go with the flow,” Wagner said. “When you’re putting tools in their hands to make a boat and they have their hands on the helm of a sailing boat and are getting it to move, it clears up the obstacles they thought they had around them.

“It’s just been a miracle for me, watching them learning.”

4 Responses to Can boatbuilding hold the key to learning math?

  1. Chuck Gould April 29, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

    Sounds like a great program.

    From a practical standpoint, there’s only a very little call to build new boats of any size out of wood. However, the skills these students learn should help them prepare for a career in repairing the existing fleet of wooden boats. Some of those old gems have been around for several generations, and with lots of TLC will hang on for generations to come.

    With the shift of over 90% of pleasure boat production to FRP, and several materials divvying up the remainder of the pie, the pool of people adept at working with wood and understanding the dynamics of a wood boat has to be shrinking.

  2. Avatar of sv / We Be Jammin
    sv / We Be Jammin April 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    Kewl story , I’m sure glad I learned to sail at 12

  3. Avatar of Dan Leach
    Dan Leach April 27, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    I am inspired to come to work every day knowing that I’m helping Dick make his visions a reality. Thanks Deborah.

  4. elizabeth April 27, 2012 at 9:15 am #

    Thanks for this inspiring and intriguing article! How can we find out about boatbuilding opportunities, and how young can a child or youth be to participate?

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