Middle schoolers helped to build and design a boat for an unmanned Japan trip.

COURTESY: HEIDE VANDENHOOFF - Everyone in Heide vandenHooff's seventh grade science class had a different job to complete in preparing their boats for launch.Heide vandenHooff's seventh-grade science class at Cedar Park Middle School is preparing to set sail to Japan.

The students, who are part of the Beaverton School District's Summa program for gifted students, won't be traveling across the Pacific themselves. But they will be tracking an unmanned fiberglass boat that they helped build and design, as it hopefully makes its way to the coast of Japan.

Cedar Park is one of just five schools in Oregon to get this opportunity, which is organized and facilitated by the Columbia River Maritime Museum. The museum built 10 boats then sent them off to different schools — two per school. One boat from each school will attempt to sail from Oregon to Japan, while the other will be shipped to Japan, so Japanese students can have the same opportunity.

VandenHooff discovered this program through serendipity, while she was looking at the museum's website for a separate purpose. She applied for the program, along with dozens of other teachers from across the state.

"It just sounded exciting," she said. "To get the kids involved with not only understanding the ocean, but putting together a boat and working with other schools in Japan."

To get the boat ready for launch, vandenHooff separated her class of about 25 students into six different groups. The students' interests were varied enough that everyone got assigned to their first team of choice.

The public relations team communicated with the school in Japan that is working with Cedar Park, and included a message on the boats translated into several different languages.

"They had to choose which languages to translate it into, because they had to think about which countries the boat might land in," vandenHooff said.

"Whoever finds it, wherever it lands, they'll have the right language to decode it and reach us," added Suyash Pandit, who worked on the international relations team.

A handful of students worked on the graphic design team.

"We basically designed the graphic that would go on the boats, and once we were done doing the designing, then we were also tasked with sending gifts to Japan," said student Citlalli Romero.

Those designs included an outline of a Lotus flower inside the Oregon state flag, to symbolize the collaboration between Oregonian and Japanese students. As gifts, the students chose a painting for the school's staff, and candy for the kids.

The hull team was responsible for sanding and painting the boats. "We decided that we wanted the colors to be blue and red on the boat, and in the middle we decided to merge them together as purple," said Yusuf Arifin.

The figurehead team created 3-D figurines to include on the boat.

"We used a website which allows you to create your own 3-D designs and print them," said Leah Paris. "Our first design was a seahorse coming out of a lotus, and that was a complicated process."

Meanwhile, the cargo team outfitted the boats with GPS technology, so that the class can track their boat online once it sets sail. They also applied a special coating to the boats "to prevent barnacles from getting on there, because barnacles can weigh down the boat enough to make it sink," said Theodore Cahall.

Finally, members of the sail team were tasked with designing the sails — which again included a Lotus flower element — and drawing their designs onto the fabric.

"I think it's incredible how every class member worked on this, and everything everyone did came together," said student Emery Frink. "Everyone contributed something."

The Cedar Park boat is currently residing at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, until the staff can find a sailing vessel that can take it out at sea and launch it. Once it's out on the open water, students will track it using GPS.

"Once our boats are launched, we'll start not only collecting data, but we'll also try and figure out why the boat is doing what it's doing," vandenHooff said. "They'll start to dig deeper to figure out the causes."

Another participating school's boat already launched, and ended up crashing onto the coast of British Columbia. But even if the vessel doesn't make it all the way to Asia, Cedar Park students are still collaborating with Japanese students — and learning to think globally.

"It's a really special opportunity to connect with people across the ocean," said Emile Bejarano, "and build bridges with people you might have never known."

Blair Stenvick
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