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Skiff construction builds STEM and carpentry skills while promoting connection with nature

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Before boarding a 12-foot Bevin’s Skiff on the reservoir at the Discovery Center at the end of last school year, Northeast High School student Christopher Medina had never been on the water. “I never realized how awkward it was to row, sitting with your back to the front. We did sometimes mess up and did go in circles a lot,” he says.

Medina, then a 10th grader, took part in Philadelphia Waterborne, a program in which Glen Foerd (an organization based at a park on the Delaware River at the northeast edge of Philadelphia) partners with Outward Bound and local schools to teach students carpentry while practicing math and physics through the building of a boat. This year students at Chester’s Toby Farms Intermediate School and Philadelphia’s Lincoln High School, W. B. Saul High School and Northeast High School will be assembling boats, using a design called the Bevin’s Skiff.

The Bevin’s Skiff is a simple rowboat designed to be built as a learning exercise. The students who take part in Philadelphia Waterborne assemble the boats from wood parts produced at Glen Foerd. “Our carpenters are making the kit, cutting pieces to size, then the kits are transported to the school,” says Trent Rhodes, assistant director at Glen Foerd.

I absolutely loved putting the pieces of wood together and watching them turn into a boat.”

— Manar Albahadly, Northeast High School student

“I had absolutely zero experience with carpentry before the program. I actually didn’t even know what a sander looked like before then,” says Manar Albahadly, who, along with Medina, helped build two boats at Northeast High School last year. “I absolutely loved putting the pieces of wood together and watching them turn into a boat. It was like a blind puzzle where I was slowly putting pieces of it together without looking at the overall picture because I was so engrossed with the pieces themselves, and then I looked at it one day and boom! It’s a literal boat!”

Students from the Philadelphia Waterborne program rowing on a boat they built. Photos courtesy of Philadelphia Waterborne.

Dirk Parker and his daughter Nia instruct the students as they put the boats together, starting by nailing the sides to pieces at the front and back, filling in the frame, attaching the bottom, and then adding interior woodwork including the seats. “The great part is that some of the technique repeats itself, like the way they do something they do it again, so it’s a great way to teach it,” Dirk says.

The Northeast High School boat builders constructed two skiffs in 2021. Building the boats meant following a plan with careful precision. After the woodwork, though, the students set their minds to the creative task of painting the boats. “After the boats were all done being built, we got to painting, and in this part the students were given full control,” says Albahadly.

The students painted one boat in the red and black colors of the Northeast High School Vikings, while the other was a little more freeform, with splashes of color and environmental symbols.

Philadelphia Waterborne gives many of the boats away to local parks and nonprofit organizations. After more than six years of boat building, with multiple schools per year, the Philadelphia Waterborne skiffs have found their way onto the water, including at Bartram’s Garden, where boaters can take them out during their Saturday free boating sessions during the summer. “If you have rowed in a boat with paint on it there, that’s one of our boats,” Dirk Parker says.

High school students have found a great sense of purpose and achievement through the Philadelphia Waterborne boat building program.

Andrew Adams, co-director of Project SPARC at Northeast High School, worked with the kids to integrate the boat building program into a broader environmental and watershed curriculum. “The kids’ reaction was ‘How cool is it to build a 12-foot boat and take it out on the water?’ Of course to give the kids access to the water is so important. It’s not just the science of rowing and physics, but also getting them out on the water and connected to nature,” says Adams.

Not all the students were ready to trust the boats they had built. “A lot of them were scared,” Adams said. “‘We just built this boat. Are we sure it’s going to work?’”

Medina had no such doubts. “I was sure that nothing would happen. We took a lot of time building it and I was proud of the work we put into it.”

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Latest from #163 December 2022