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Cardboard Canoes = Fun

2010 Races

Cardboard Canoes - 2010

This Friday is the annual (7th?) cardboard canoe race, held at the SHP Aquatic Center (note: this truly is an aquatic center and not just a “pool”). Students from all levels of physics will be competing to… well, I am not sure.

To start, different levels of physics have different classroom objectives for this project. For all of the students in the AP Physics courses (B and C levels), the project arrives after the national AP exam and after the course final exam so for the most part it gives the students something on which to focus their energy. In the general physics course the students are still working towards their final exam and so this counts towards a grade. For my students the story is a bit different.

Physics Honor has an interesting place in the curriculum – it is not “AP” level but it still earns weighted GPA credit. They are challenged – in some ways – just as the AP students are challenged but they don’t cover as much material and don’t prepare for the intensity of the national exam. Trying to balance these factors is an interesting trick throughout the year and for this project it is no different. I so desperately want them to have fun with the project because it is a blast to jump in the water at the end of the year and paddle in a makeshift canoe race. Yet I also want to give them grade credit for applying some physics to their approach.

So here is my solution: students write a one-page abstract outlining the basics of the physics associated with the canoe that is submitted the week before the project. They also submit a picture and a drawing of their design. The key is that the points associated with the project are associated with the paper  – I want to give away the points for the tasks that are (relatively) easy and that they already possess. The points associated with the canoe building are secondary because I don’t actually teach them how to engineer  a canoe  – that learning occurs organically and through the time-honored tradition of trial and error.

Yet no matter how hard I try to make sure that the students grab some basic nuggets of physics along the way the project invariably results in teenage hilarity. Costumes? Yup – they have them. Extreme antics? Of course – they are 17 years old. Out of whack attachment to winning a meaningless contest? You betcha! (we even have a college student begging to come back and enter because his two years of trying to win the race resulted in two second-place finishes). Parent excitement? It is unbelievable how much parents and the community love this event, something which continues to astonish me. As the story goes, one parent relayed that this is the only event that they truly felt connected to the school.

Bottom line? Let go and have fun! The rest will take care of itself.

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This entry was posted on May 15, 2011 by in Physics Honors, SHP and tagged , , , .

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