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Setting sail: WMS students create their own boats in 4-H STEM program

Sixth-graders Joshua Vasquez (from left), Evan Wagner, Carter Frecking and 4-H Program Coordinator Katie Klosterbuer watch a boat take sail with the wind. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Worthington Middle School sixth-graders had a tough challenge Thursday — create their own working sailboats.


The afternoon class was part of 4-H’s In-School STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program, which aims to get kids excited about those topics by engaging them in a hands-on fashion.


The WMS students didn’t have much to build with. Styrofoam plates, trays and cups, duct tape, tinfoil, plastic wrap, little weights and straws were all they were given to make a seaworthy vessel.


The water, in this case, was the cafeteria floor, while winds were simulated by a large fan. The goal was to see how far students could get the sailboats to travel, but for many it was more about getting the boat to move at all without tipping over. This was the last 4-H class of the year for the group of nine boys, who had been working on their boats since their first class in October.


The exercise gives the students practice with trial and error. After seeing how their sailboats fared out on the open marble floor, they made their own adjustments.


Nobles County 4-H Program Coordinator Katie Klosterbuer wouldn’t tell them what to do, but instead watched them figure it out on their own and in groups.


“We don’t give them the answers,” Klosterbuer said. “It’s more of a student-run, hands-on way of learning, where they have control over how they mold their learning experience.”


Sixth-grader Jacob Meyer explained in-depth how he was able to make his boat, the “Flying Dutchman,” sail somewhat smoothly in harsh winds.


“The wind hits the paper and it goes,” Meyer said. “And then you put tinfoil on the bottom because it has less friction than styrofoam.”


Many of the other boats also deployed efficient tinfoil hulls, including Kaden Wendling’s “Flying Dutchman 2.0” and Evan Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman Off-Brand.”


Michael Compton, youth development educator for University of Minnesota Extension, said he was happy to see kids take ideas from each other.


“We actually encourage them to copy each other and work with each other, because that’s how they learn to create new and better things,” Compton said. “In science and engineering, it’s all about taking something someone else created and saying, ‘How can I build upon this?’”


The 4-H STEM classes are a privilege and something all sixth-graders look forward to, according to Judy Heitkamp, sixth-grade science teacher.


“These kids don't normally get this experience outside of school,” Heitkamp said. “It’s teacher-recommended, so they have to prove it with their good behavior and grades. Everybody wants to be a part of it.”


Klosterbuer said the program often accomplishes its goal of getting kids excited about science.


“They probably don’t directly see that this is science — they see that we’re building sailboats or drones, robotics, whatever it is,” Klosterbuer said. “But it gets them excited about it, and in class, they take what they learned and put those pieces together.”

Sixth-grader Luis Gonzalez named his boat the “S.S. Failure” after it couldn’t ride the wind, but still joined in with the chorus of disappointed “no’s” when Compton told students time was up and the class was coming to an end.


Heitkamp was excited about how much her students were interested in the subject.


“My whole class thinks they’re going to be scientists,” Heitkamp said. “They love science, and that’s my job — to instill a love for science — especially in sixth grade, because eventually that tends to go away.”


“You want that spark now, because now they’re deciding what they want to do,” Compton added.