Project-Based Learning (PBL)

The Shallop Project: A Summer Learning Adventure

August 30, 2010

Bath, Maine, has long been known as the City of Ships. More than 400 years ago, this was the site that launched the Virginia, the first seaworthy ship built by English-speakers in the New World. Since 1884, Bath Iron Works has been turning out battleships, destroyers, and commercial craft.

This summer, visitors to the Bath waterfront have had a chance to watch the community's newest generation of shipbuilders hone their craft. Fourteen students from Morse High School are building a replica of a 16th-century wooden boat known as a shallop. They've cut the keel, milled the white-oak planking to the proper thickness, and are sanding the spruce oars to just the right shape. And that's not all. While mastering new skills, students are also putting their technology prowess to work to tell the story behind Shallop Project.

It's a story worth celebrating. The project shows how to leverage summer learning opportunities, how to use technology for an important purpose, and also how to forge connections between school and community.

Living History

Once upon a time, the shallop was a common sight on these waters. "It was the Colonists' version of a water taxi," explains Eric Varney, science teacher at Morse High. A Maine native, Varney also happens to have an infectious interest in maritime history. To get the The Shallop Project launched, he had to enlist a host of partners, including the school district, local businesses, and a nonprofit called Maine's First Ship. Varney admits it's the most ambitious project he's ever undertaken.

Once the details were in place, students were quick to come aboard. Participating in the eight-week program earns them two academic credits -- the equivalent of two high school courses. But individual motivation varies widely. "One boy was shy on credits but good with his hands. This helps him get back on track," Varney explains. Another is already a skilled lobsterman and wants to pursue a career in boat building. Still others like the idea of using their computer skills for an authentic project.

A team of adults has come together to help students navigate this challenging project. Shipwright William West is teaching students about the process of building a boat by hand. Videographer and media specialist Patti Irish works with students on the technology side. Because of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which puts laptops into students' hands, they have been comfortable using computers from day one. Irish helps them edit videos, write and record original music, and blog about their summer adventure. Merry Chapin, a recently retired elementary teacher, shares her interest in local history and also works with Varney on project planning.

Learning in Public

By design, this project has been about learning in public. Sandwich boards and fliers that students have posted around town draw in visitors. "Every day, we have people stopping by the shop," Varney says. Students take turns as docents, telling the story of their project and sharing their enthusiasm for learning by doing. One day, they might be talking with a contingent from Japan. The next, they're answering questions from curious local residents or out-of-town tourists.

Jim Moulton, former Edutopia blogger, stopped by the workshop one summer day and saw a winning combination of "real world and digital world, high tech and high touch." He observed one boy making oars: "By hand, [and] with a block plane. Beautiful work. I can see a career for him, and an introduction to calculus as he finds that curves are really just made by making the straight lines of a corner shorter and more numerous."

Elsewhere in the shop, he noticed a girl "getting the forms ready to accept the keel. She showed as much skill with a chisel and wood rasp as she did with her MacBook when she produced video and wrote blog entries to document the work of the group." Moulton also noticed an abundance of volunteers.

Community Connections

The Bath community "has embraced the project," Varney says. "It's been amazing. Builders have come by to loan us machinery. They just drop it off and say: It's yours as long as you need it." The local shipyard donated safety equipment. Neighbors have taken turns making snacks for the hard-working teens. Fundraising is ongoing, but Varney says it's "easier to raise money when you're actually doing something rather than just talking about an idea."

The boat won't be quite done by the time school resumes at Morse High (where the school mascot is the Shipbuilder), but work will continue as an after-school project. Once it's ready, the sturdy little boat will be used for rowing and sailing classes, as well as living history programs. Already, Varney is forseeing a need for a few sister ships. "Maybe a little fleet," he says, to keep teens engaged for many summers to come.

As this summer comes to a close, 14 students can take pride in knowing that they have carried on a local tradition -- and launched a new one.

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  • 9-12 High School

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