Jayshawn Banks, an eighth grade student at Red Bank Middle School, peeks above the top of his laptop — just enough time to compare the sailboat blueprint he’s developing on his screen with the real dinghy that is being assembled just a few feet away.
Jayshawn’s classmate, Shelly Vasquez, a seventh grader at Red Bank Charter School, does the same. Both are intent on the task at hand: to build a sailboat. And while both students know they can get quick answers from their teachers in the room, they remain steadfastly independent, choosing to work with their peers instead.
“We feel like architects,” Jayshawn said. “And when we run into problems, we know we can ask the teacher, but we’d rather figure it out ourselves.”
This balance of independence and collaboration is a hallmark of the five-week RBCS Summer Institute, available to all elementary school-aged children.
The Institute centers around a comprehensive STEM-based curriculum, and fuses concepts of STEM into real-world summer-learning activities. The concept for this summer’s boat-building project, open for students grades 5 through 8 and appropriately named “Set Sail,” was hatched 10 years ago by RBCS Principal Meredith Pennotti, who had long wanted to integrate a vital community natural resource, the Navesink River, into the school’s curriculum.
“What is learned in the classroom must be applied in the real world,” Pennotti said. “This program is meant to excite our students as they use their STEM skills while having this amazing experience that connects them to nature,” she said.
Students work with RBCS STEM Teacher Brenda Conni as well as Patrick Koar, a life-long sailor who grew up racing sailboats on Barnegat Bay and now coaches other sailors.
“There are so many recreational activities that kids are exposed to, but not all kids are able to have access to nearby waterways and to all the learning opportunities they present,” Koar said. “The water has shaped who I am and I know how it’s benefitted me well into adulthood. I want kids in my community to have the same access.”
A certified instructor with more than 25 years of sailing and racing experience, Koar currently races with the Barnegat Bay Yacht Racing Association and instructs people how to sail and build boats. The Set Sail workshop will culminate with the students taking their work right in the water, as they complete design and construction of their own foam core dinghy.
Having access to the water and developing programs around that access has a strong community development component that appealed to RBCS teachers, Pennotti said.
“The program exposes Red Bank children to a resource that belongs to them. It’s in their town, it’s down the street, and we need to take advantage of that,” she said.
The summer workshop, which is funded as part of the RBCS STEM curriculum, includes trips to the Toms River Seaport Museum, where the students design model boats and have gutter races. Students also visit the Monmouth Boat Club in Red Bank, where they learn about the Club’s historic building, the effects of Hurricane Sandy, and are able to climb aboard the dry-docked boats to learn about the parts and lines with instructor Denis Farley and other volunteers.
Finally, each Friday students head to de Rouville’s Boat Yard in Bayville to learn about how boats are lifted out of the water for cleaning and repair as craftsmen demonstrate how to design new parts for boats. Students also learn about buoyancy and how to use compasses and barometers.
“This is an extended learning period of the school year and the kids really thrive with the workshop’s focus on experiential learning,” said Conni, the RBCS STEM teacher. “Children see things, hear things and they learn. When they do, they understand, and when they understand it gives them that confidence to be creative.”
Asked if this program could develop into a community-wide initiative, Pennotti said she was encouraged by the amount of interest from the organizations involved. “I think this could be a lasting collaboration that not only allows our students to develop necessary academic skills, but gives them a connection to the community and to the unique history of this part of the state.”