Set Sail with Science

On a hot morning in July, Anne Arundel County high school STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), students raced three miniature remote control sailboats around a wood piling and back to the starting line, a roughly 60-foot trek. The winds were fairly strong and each boat was timed. 

Bridge program instructor Aimee Poisson asked the kids to make estimates of the course length. Some of the drivers had a great deal of luck in the race, making it through the course in three minutes or less. Others weren’t
so successful.

Struggling to keep a straight course, many drivers failed to prevent the boats from drifting away in the wind and heading under the dock. Their frustration caused laughter on the sidelines. Poisson did not hesitate to poke fun at the students a little when they failed to follow directions or had a boating “brain fart,” as she put it. She kept it light.

Throughout the summer, downtown Annapolis welcomes Anne Arundel County high school STEM program students to set
sail with their classmates with the Bridge Program. This seminar teaches kids math and science concepts, which they can apply through sailing. 

Rather than being stuck in a classroom, students build and test their own cardboard boats and learn to sail actual sailboats from the Annapolis Harbor into the Severn River. Students apparently enjoy themselves despite sinking a cardboard boat every once in a while and getting a bit wet. 

The program is in its fifth year, so it is fairly new but strong. It began when the National Sailing Hall of Fame (NSHOF) reached out to schools and initiated partial funding for the program. 

“From the beginning, we thought this was a huge opportunity to teach math in sailing,” said Lee Tawney, Director of the National Sailing Hall of Fame.  “The operation and navigation of the boat really is a kind of science.”

NSHOF coordinators visit high schools in the fall and spring to teach navigation and the science of sailing to 9th and 10th graders. The students are able to expand their knowledge and earn class credit. 

STEM students also must take the summer Bridge Program to graduate. As many as 300 students at a time take two two-week navigation and the science of sailing programs and a one-week engineering program. The classroom sessions happen in the morning followed by on-the-water sailing activities after noon. They sail for about two and a half hours each day for two weeks, Mondays through Thursdays.  

“Next year, there will be a type of teacher academy,” Tawney said. “Math and science teachers will learn to sail in order to form a specialized curriculum.”

Noah, 15, a sophomore at North County High School, said he enjoys the program because of the hands-on activities. “I like learning the different parts about tacking and driving,” He also claims his math and science skills have, “definitely improved.”

After racing the remote control boats, the kids get to go out on the water and put their crew behavior skills to the test. They are also taken on field trips to locations like Defense Information Systems Agency, the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency and NASA. 

“I love watching the kids get into it,” said Erin Szachnowicz, a 6th grade teacher at Central Middle School who volunteers to chaperone the Bridge Program activities. “They figure out the wind and how to communicate. They actually listen to the skipper.”

The program has utilized many sailboats including the Jolly Dolphin, the Witchcraft and the Fantasy

“The program is absolutely stimulating and they get to have a great time,” Szachnowicz said. 

Adriana and Sarai, sophomores at South River High School said they learned lots and were definitely challenged through the program. “I’ve never really sailed before but now I know about the anchor conditions, right of way, and how to raise, lower and trim the main sail,” Adriana said. 

Instructor Aimee Poisson is spending her second year in Annapolis at the Sailing Hall of Fame. “My favorite part is seeing the kids take ownership of the experience,” Poisson said. “They demonstrate clear growth and some of them actually continue to sail as a hobby.” 

Some of the skills the students acquire are safety-mindedness, independence and responsibility.

“I’ve taught sailors of all ages, but I like to watch these kids really think it out on their own,” Poisson said. “They learn good crew behavior, focus on the task at hand and apply knowledge while using discretion to do as instructed.”

To learn more about the National Sailing Hall of Fame and the Anne Arundel County Summer Bridge Program go to www.education.nshof.org

—Taylor Bromante

Talk of the BayBeth Walsh