VUHS students learn many skills in raft-building class

VERGENNES — Earlier this month, students in the Building Machines summer school class at Vergennes Union High School started chatting about Mark Twain’s stories of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer’s exploits in a small Mississippi River town.
Class member Malcolm Donovan-Cook described what happened next in a course taught by Ferrisburgh resident Peter Stapleford, and for which seven 7th-, 8th- and 9th-graders had signed up to spend time working with Lego robotics and computer programming.
“We were talking about Huckleberry Finn, and it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it would be so cool to build your own raft,’” said Donovan-Cook, a 13-year-old Vergennes resident who will enter 8th grade this fall. “And then Stapleford was like, ‘I’ll be back in a second.’”
Stapleford left to find Jill Strube, the co-director of the VUHS summer school program, which is known, appropriately enough in this case, as “SAIL,” for Summer Adventures in Learning. (See related article.)
Stapleford pitched Strube on allowing the class to follow through on the students’ raft-building concept.
“We were talking about all of this and the idea of just floating down the river, and I thought about it for a second, and I said, ‘Well, why not?’” Stapleford said. “And I went down to Jill … and I said, ‘Tell me why I can’t do this.’”
Strube remembered the conversation, and had a similar response to Stapleford’s.
“He came to me and said, ‘Tell me I’m crazy, and I shouldn’t be doing this. We’re talking about Tom Sawyer, and the kids are really into it, and we want to build a raft and float down Otter Creek,’ and I said, ‘Why not? Go for it.’”
That the class did. On Monday, six of the seven members of the class gathered below the falls in Vergennes and pushed off into the river on three rafts they built themselves, with some power-saw and final design help from Stapleford.
Stapleford and the students scavenged the necessary lumber from the old VUHS middle school bleachers, which had recently been removed. On Monday morning they lashed plastic barrels (provided by the city) to the bottom of the three rafts to provide buoyancy. The plan called for the rafts to carry the students about four miles down the river to Eriksen’s Crow’s Nest Marina.
Strube acknowledged the end product didn’t exactly fit the course description, which stated “you will create the ultimate robotic machine and … roller coasters, Ferris wheels, bridges and other machines” using Lego Mindstorm, K’Nex products and computers.
But she has no objection to the old-school direction the course ended up taking. Strube pointed to the project’s many educational elements, including studying weather forecasts and river currents, learning carpentry skills and teamwork, and using math to design and build the rafts.
“It’s really a comprehensive learning package all tied into one project,” Strube said. “They’re getting social studies. They’re getting science. They’re getting math. And there’s a tie-in to literature. So how can you beat it?”
Stapleford also appreciates many elements of the project, not the least of which is the teamwork and camaraderie it created in what he called a diverse group.
“They come from a bunch of different backgrounds … and they’ve all come together, working together beautifully, helping each other, supporting each other,” he said. “That’s what I really love to see in this type of program. And they’re learning that school, literature, can be fun.”
Donovan-Cook said it was not that the group didn’t like each other, but that the raft project brought out the best in them.
“There’s a strong emphasis on teamwork. We’re getting along better. We’re more unified in this project,” he said. “We’re all helping each other out. We all contributed to each raft.”
Donovan-Cook, whose dad is a carpenter, appreciates the math and building skills the project is teaching the students, and its hands-on nature.
“I think the fact that we’re going to have a finished product, a raft that we’re going to actually sail, is what’s drawing people to it,” he said. “This is great because we’re working. If you think about it, school is supposed to prepare you for real life, and actually physically getting stuff done and managing your time and managing your materials are definitely valuable skills to know.”
Stapleford also hopes taking a step back into the past will help the students appreciate what the area around them has to offer, above and beyond the lure of modern technology.
“The big thing I want to see come out of this, I guess, for myself is for these guys to realize there is so much more to life than electronics. There is such a world out here that these guys miss because of the wonderful availability of all this great technology,” he said. “Marching through the woods, building forts, stuff like this, just living life … Growing up in a small town is paradise, and I want them to realize that.”
Donovan-Cook sees at least a short-term effect.
“Everyone’s having fun, and technology hasn’t even been brought into the conversation,” he said. “If it’s gotten to the point where they’ve just forgotten about it, I’d say that’s a good thing.”
Speaking last week as the students were putting the finishing touches on their rafts, Donovan-Cook admitted he was not completely confident in their buoyancy. Regardless, though, he said building them has been worth it.
“Any way you slice it, I built the thing. If it sinks, it’s on me,” he said. “Worst-case scenario, you go for a swim in the creek in the middle of the summer.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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