Wednesday, March 14, 2012

a cardboard boat story.

If your high school classes were anything like mine, you spent a lot of time doing projects. I wrote poetry for English class (poetry is the very loosest sense of the word –  mine consisted mostly of goofy rhymes like “spectacular” and “vernacular”), reproduced Starry Night for art class, and created an informative poster about the rhombus for geometry class. However, no project of mine will quite live up to the infamy that was the physics cardboard boat.

When I was a junior, I (along with a handful of other people) was more or less forced into physics because there were too many people in chemistry class. The juniors were required to take some sort of science course that year, and physics and chemistry were the only options. Given the meager choices, almost everyone signed up for chemistry, including me. The classroom was packed beyond capacity, so the principal had to convince some people to switch to physics. She picked out a few of us and took us aside to give us her pitch. “Oh, you wouldn’t enjoy chemistry anyway,” she said. “You’re all too smart for that. Physics will be right up your alley. It will be much more intellectually challenging. It’s much more appropriate for people as smart as you.” I am not making this up. Despite the thinly-veiled manipulation, a number of us reluctantly agreed to switch into physics class.

On the first day of class, I immediately began questioning my decision. The first thing our teacher did was give us an assignment: a team of three would have to build a boat out of cardboard and duct tape. Not only would we have to build this contraption, but it would have to float… while holding the entire team. NOT ONLY would we have to build it and make it seaworthy, we would have to race the other teams across the Arlington swimming pool.

My team consisted of my friend Allison and one other girl. Allison and I took the project head-on: our first move was, of course, to acquire some cardboard. As I’ve mentioned before, Brookings is the go-to place for Arlingtonites, so that’s where Allison and I began. Our first stop was a downtown furniture store, which ended up being incredibly lucrative (“lucrative” in the cardboard sense, anyway). The furniture we spoke to was certainly amused, and he kindly offered up as many boxes as our little hearts desired. He even gave us permission to pull the car into the alley behind the store so it would be easier to get at them.

As Allison and I were walking back to the car to move it into the alley, we were met by an old bearded man on a bike. He was pulling a little wagon full of cans behind him. The bearded man stopped his bike and said, "Hi girls." Being polite Midwesterners, Allison and I returned is greeting. He said cheerfully, "You know, I'm going to have to kill you sometime." Then, he calmly rode away. Our project was clearly off to a great start.

Allison and I loaded up the car with cardboard and headed back to Arlington, and construction on the boat began the very next day. The three of us congregated in Allison’s backyard and did the token “physics” part of the project (buoyancy calculations, etc). It took us the entire evening to build the body, and we spent the next evening duct-taping and waterproofing to the very best of our abilities.

Partway through our waterproofing, we realized that we’d need a way to propel our boat from point A to point B. Since cardboard and duct tape were the only permitted materials, the best idea we could come up with was to use two carpet tubes as gondolas. One small problem: we had no carpet tubes. Fortunately for us, it was a Thursday: downtown stores in Brookings stay open late on Thursdays. We called around, and sure enough, we found a furniture store in Brookings that was more than happy to donate their carpet tubes to a worthy cause.

Allison and I traveled to Brookings to retrieve our carpet tube (our third member had volunteered to stay behind and continue covering the boat in duct tape). Upon arrival at the furniture store, we were handed a fourteen-foot carpet tube! Thankfully, we had the foresight to bring along a hacksaw – you never know when you’ll need one. Alas, we did NOT have the foresight to bring along a tape measure, so our hacksawed carpet tube was a bit uneven. Oh well – we had our gondolas!

After picking up a final emergency roll of duct tape, we returned to Arlington to find that our third team member had gone home. Why? She had run out of tape. Good thing we’d picked up that last roll. Allison and I finished taping the boat by flashlight. Finally, our ship was complete.

Just in time, too: the very next day was race day. Allison’s dad delivered the boat to the school, and I showed up with a Jolly Roger flag taped to a yard stick. Our boat was christened the H.M.S. Minnow, as we were certain that she’d be lost by the end of the day. The race took place at the Arlington Pool shortly after lunch. It was a gorgeous early fall day, and some of the race participants had even opted to wear swimming suits. Our team did not: we put more faith in the Minnow than we should have.

We arrived at the pool, carrying our boats, to be met with a surprise: the ENTIRE school was there to watch us sink or swim. Not only that, but most of the town of Arlington was there, too (including my parents and a couple of cousins). Our physics teacher had even arranged for the pep band to play. It was quite an event.

With a wave of a red flag, the race began. It was time to set sail. Allison gingerly stepped in the front, but our third member (who was to be the last person in, so she was in charge of hanging onto the boat from the side of the pool) wasn’t hanging on tight enough. The Minnow began to escape. Allison couldn’t reach the gondola pole that we extended from the side of the pool, so the only option was for the two of us to jump in. (The only way to get a good grade on this project was for the entire team to be in the boat when it touched the other side.) So in we went. By the time we caught up to the boat, Allison was nearly to the finish line. I climbed in the boat easily, but our third member wasn’t so sure. Frustrated, Allison and I began to actually yell at her – after all that work, we weren’t about to lose out on an A now! Finally, our soggy team member leapt into the boat… but her leap wasn’t good enough. She crushed an entire side of the boat in her attempt to get in. After all that, though, we made it across the pool with all three members in the boat.

We slogged out of the pool, soaked to the very bone. The Minnow was reduced to a sopping pile of cardboard and duct tape, but she had served us well. We didn’t win the race that day, but that’s not what mattered. I could pretend like the take-away lesson from this project was that physics can be fun and that you can accomplish all sorts of things if you put your mind to it, but that wasn’t it. I can’t say I actually learned anything that day… but any day that involves spending half your school day in a swimming pool racing with cardboard boats is ok in my book.

Here we are, right before the race. Not shown: shipwreck.
(P.S. – We totally got an A.) 

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