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Fifth-graders at Columbia City Elementary School take part in Miniboat program to study ocean currents, other lessons

PMG PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - Fifth-grade students in Yvonne Lewis class at Columbia City Elementary School are part in the Miniboat Program hosted by the Columbia River Maritime Museum. The students build two small boats which are equipped with GPS as the boats make their way across the Pacific Ocean.Fifth-grade students at Columbia City Elementary School are taking part in the Columbia River Maritime Museum's Miniboat program, which allows students to construct a small unmanned sailboat that will be launched off the Pacific Coast with the goal of making it to Japan using only ocean currents and wind.

The Miniboat program was launched in 2017 by Nate Sandel, education director for the Columbia River Maritime Museum. The program operates in partnership with the Consular Office of Japan in Portland, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and is supported by Pacific Power, the U.S. Coast Guard, and many other groups, a media release for the program stated.

Students build the boats using kits purchased from the program Educational Pathways. During the school year, students build two autonomous boats from the kits, one of which will be launched from the U.S. and the other from the coast of Japan by students from a partner school there.

The students can track the GPS location of the boats online as they make their way across the Pacific Ocean. Working hands-on with the boats also advances education goals associated with STEAM, or science, technology, engineer, arts and math.

The program has provided educational opportunities for more than 1,200 students who have launched 21 MiniBoats over the past three years, Sandel explained.

Miniboat is highly student driven. Students get to decide the name of the boat, how it will be decorated, what items should be stored in the keel, where the boat should be launched from based on student research, and more.

After the boat is launched in January, students will check in via its equipped GPS to see how it has fared.

At Columbia City Elementary School, fifth-grade students in Yvonne Lewis' class have been working on the project for most of the school year. Each student has a different job to do. While some are studying ocean currents, others are helping design and paint the boat's sail, acting as documentarians or working on media relations. The students have also set up a private social media page to track the progress of the boat build.

PMG PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - Bella Garcia, left, works with her classmates to help paint the name of the boat onto the keel on Friday, Oct. 25. Garcia requested to name the boat after a friend of hers who recently passed away who had a passion for boats. On Friday, Oct. 25, several students who make up the Quartermaster Team researched ocean currents and calculated where to launch the boat. They determined a location near San Francisco to be the most suitable location.

"People think it's boring, but it's the most exciting thing to do," student Dakota Drake said while peering over her computer screen.

Meanwhile, students on the media relations and documentarian teams milled around the classroom, talking with visitors about the project and taking photos of work underway.

Outside, a group of students on the keel engineer team also clustered around the two boats and worked on applying paint. The students selected teal, blue and green shades to adhere to nautical and river themes, which plays off the school's mascot, the Otters.

Last week, the students also engaged in one of the most exciting parts of the build so far - naming the boat. Earlier in the year, student Bella Garcia pitched the idea of naming the boat "Philbert."

Philbert was a friend of Garcia's and a resident of the Thanksgiving House in St. Helens where Garcia volunteers with her mom. Philbert, who had a passion for boats, passed away earlier this year and Garcia wanted to keep his memory alive. Students in Lewis' class all voted to approve the name.

"I just wanted to have his name with me because when he passed away it was a very hard time for me," Garcia said. "I just wanted him to see what I'm doing because I have a feeling he's looking down."

On Friday, the students got to paint the name on the boat using a special stencil and white paint, while the class gathered around and cheered excitedly.

"It kind of made me want to cry because everyone was just cheering and I was just like, 'Oh my gosh,'" Garcia said after the experience. "When everyone was cheering, I had a little tear. It was just amazing how we got to do this."

Lewis wanted to bring the MiniBoats program to the school because of its close proximity to the Columbia River.

"Anything to do with ships or the river is something I have been very focused on since I've been teaching here at Columbia City," Lewis said.

While students work on with the boat once a week, they take part in other classroom activities almost daily that revolve around the project.

"The work is pretty intensive and pretty much daily even though there's one day of the week that's a work day. They have ongoing projects through the week with writing and posting and filming and just one hands-on ship day each week," Lewis said.

The Philbert will be launched sometime in January by the U.S. Coast Guard, Lewis explained. The students will take a field trip to see the boat christened before the Coast Guard loads it into a cargo net and transports it to its launch location.

With their heavy involvement in the project, Lewis thinks the work will be something memorable and unique for her students.

"I think they will remember this forever. I think it's one of those projects you don't forget," Lewis said. "It's local and meaningful to our area and every piece of hard work they're doing means something. They have an investment in this project."

During the past few years, Sandel has learned how to modify the boats to increase their chances of success.

So far, none of the boats have made it all the way to Japan, but they have landed in some fascinating places, Sandel said. But whether the boat reaches its destination is not really how success of the program is measured.

"Are we bringing something unique to the students? Are we teaching them STEAM skills to prepare for future careers? And if the answer is yes, and the kids are smiling. That measures success for me," Sandel said.

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