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Launch of 13-foot skiff culminates boat-building odyssey

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Merlo Station High School students Chris Luethe and Stephen Birtchet, along with sailing instructor Bill Wessinger, take out the students' newly made boat on the Willamette River.If you told Gabe Alcaraz a year ago that he could earn a math credit without sitting at a desk and end up launching a sailboat into the Willamette River on a sunny spring day, you’d likely elicit a hearty laugh from the Merlo Station Community High School senior.

Yet that’s just what happened to Alcaraz and four of his schoolmates, who gathered at the Willamette Sailing Club, 6336 S.W. Beaver St. in Portland, on Saturday morning to launch the S.S. Jack Sparrow. Before a throng of onlookers, sponsors and dignitaries including Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, the students christened and launched the 13-foot skiff, a Penobscot 13 model, they designed and built.

Merlo Station’s Build-A-Boat program is geared toward enhancing hands-on engineering, design, science and mathematics skills. Collaborating with the Portland-based Wind and Oar Boat School, 10 Merlo Station students took part in designing and building the boat during a 12-week experiential learning period.

With support from the nonprofit Worksystems’ workforce development programs, students earn math and applied arts credits. To get the job done by the end of the school year, students spent a lot of time in a wood shop in TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Peter Crim of the Willamette Sailing Club inspects The Sparrow, a boat built by students of Merlo Station Community High School.

“I’m better at working with my hands than sitting at a desk,” Alcaraz explained on Saturday just after the boat launch. “In the beginning it was pretty tough. It was my first time (in the shop). As the weeks passed, I got used to it. I learned a lot of things about building a boat.”

Chris Luethe, a Merlo junior, thought the program would better suit his natural inclinations.

“I’m better at working with my hands,” the 17-year-old said. “My teacher told me about the program. I said, ‘That sounds interesting.’”

Matt Loughner, a program consultant at Merlo Station, was inspired to see the culmination of the students’ intense focus and effort toward bringing the craft to life.

“This is a truly great group of young men,” he said. “To see them growing and developing using new skills, knowledge and tools is just remarkable. I’m so proud of them. They’re the stars of the show.”

Now in its sixth year, the program marks a unique collaboration between area schools, the Wind and Oar Boat School, Daimler Trucks North America’s “Education in Motion” program and Worksystems, an organization dedicated to investing resources to enhance workforce quality in Portland, and Multnomah and Washington counties.

A donation from Daimler to the Wind and Oar school fueled the collaboration with Merlo in an effort to stimulate STEM-based learning focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“The (Merlo) principal (Mary Jean Katz) thought this was a great way to encourage learning,” Loughner said. “These students are very capable of sitting in class, but in wood shop they excel at a really high level. (Applying) math is an entirely new thing to them.”

Mayor Hales, himself an avid boater, praised the program’s do-it-yourself nature and the students’ ingenuity as fitting perfectly with the Portland area’s community spirit.

“We actually make things with our hands in Portland,” he said. “These young men are not only distinguishing themselves by building a boat, but they’re going to be out on our river — and it’s clean now.

“You guys have what I hope will now be a lifelong addiction to being on the water. That’s an experience some young guys never get a chance to do,” Hales added, gesturing toward the new boat moored at the dock. “Anybody would be proud to say, ‘I built that.’ Well done.”

Luis Mendoza, a senior at Merlo Station, said designing the seats to fit within the small skiff’s curved parameters was the biggest challenge.

“The hardest part was the seats — using geometry to leave spaces between them,” he noted. “Every time you have to take it out and put it (back) together. It was frustrating, but once you finish it, it’s worth it.”

Standing by the Jack Sparrow just as he and his classmates prepared for a maiden voyage between the dock and Ross Island, Mendoza exuded a sense of sweet relief.

“It seemed like a never-ending process,” he said. “I thought we’d never get it done, but here it is. It’s exciting to know that you built it.”

Check out an earlier article about the building process.

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The students of Merlo Station High School in Beaverton and their mentor Matt Laughner pose with the boat they built prior to its maiden voyage on the Willamette River.

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Merlo Station High School students Chris Luethe and Stephen Birtchet, along with sailing instructor Bill Wessinger, take out the boat students built as part of a science, math and engineering project.

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