Learning to stay above water in the Vail Valley | VailDaily.com

Learning to stay above water in the Vail Valley

Derek Franz
Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyJorge Velasco, right, and the school's principal Kathy Brenza, in a gorilla suit, help carry The New America School's boat to the pool at the Gypsum Recreation Center for the Trash 'N Splash competition

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –Coming up with an idea and making it float is a challenge, especially under a time constraint.

Students at The New America School had about one week to collect a bunch of trash and build a boat for an Earth Day contest April 23 at the Gypsum Recreation Center. Their boat didn’t hold the most weight – the winning boat floated 1,000 pounds – but it did win $200 for “best use of junk.”

The Trash ‘N Splash competition was Gypsum’s first Earth Day celebration. Eight teams of six people designed and built boats from scrap materials and other objects. The boats had to be within 4.5 feet wide, 6 feet long and 6.5 feet high. Columbine Market won $200 for holding the most weight and team Trash Boat won the same for “people’s choice.” All the other boats won applause as they tipped over and dumped passengers into the pool.

New America School was the last team to find out about the contest – its building process started almost exactly one week before the float-off.

“I think most of the teams knew about the contest before the flier came out because I’d contacted a bunch of people,” said Dawn Ritts, one of the Trash ‘N Splash coordinators. “I told all the schools about it but The New America School slipped my mind.”

Two New America School teachers saw the contest flier during their physical education class at the rec center and decided it was a great learning opportunity.

“We had a meeting that Monday night to write a lesson plan and implement it the next day,” said Leah Teeters, who is officially the school’s English teacher but assumes many other roles with the other seven staff members.

New America School is a charter school for people 15 to 21 years old who want to finish their high school education. For example, some of them are working parents who take day or night classes at the Gypsum campus. About 100 students attend and many of them are learning English as a second language. Fifteen are on track to graduate this year.

A few days later, the students were collecting materials for the junk boat.

“We went to the recycling center and people looked at us funny as we were rifling through the materials and talking about what would float,” Teeters said.

The teachers saw the project as a fine chance to intertwine science, math, art and design, social studies and language arts in a real-life application.

Another lesson for the students centered around deadline performance. Four days before the contest and with only school hours to work on the project, the students still had to select a design before doing any construction. They voted on two final designs drafted by classmates and quickly began cutting and cleaning materials.

“I would feel better about our boat if it wasn’t contaminating the pool,” said New America School science teacher Caron Crevling about washing the materials.

Habitat for Humanity donated some items, such as 4-inch PVC pipes, and the rest looked like it came straight from the dump. Dirty bottles, big and small, were coupled with pieces of Styrofoam and lashed to the pipe-and-plywood frame with rope woven from plastic grocery bags.

Even before that, though, the bottles were filled with CO2 by dropping chunks of dry ice into them. The students had to experiment with the proper amount to use – too much and the bottles blew up or shot across the room as their caps popped off. In the end, Brendza bought 21/2 pounds of dry ice.

The bottles and foam were initially glued onto the raft but the job didn’t hold. That’s when the rope of woven bags came into play. However, with 30 minutes of class time remaining on two days before the contest, the builders were still scratching their heads amid piles of scraps. They had a total of 3 1/2 hours left to finish. Somehow that was all they needed. The boat was decorated and ready to float on the day before the competition.

Near-chaos ensued once the eight boats were carried from the Gypsum rec center gym to the pool through a locker-room hallway. Ritts tried to explain the procedure of the contest, but even with a microphone her words were mostly garbled in the strange water-room acoustics. The eclectic trash boats tipped and bobbed and team members splashed around before order was found in all the distracting noise and confusion.

The New America School vessel carried five students and a gorilla (Principal Katy Brendza in costume) before spilling them into the drink. It was the first boat to fail but it was also one of the smallest.

Wanting to adhere strictly to the guidelines and avoid disqualification, Crevling said they erred on the safe side by making the frame under the maximum specifications. The winning payload boat was almost a foot over the length requirements.

“I think we’ll stick with the same specs next year but we will be stricter on the measurements,” Ritts said, adding that turnout and fun were the main priorities of the contest.

All the boats held impressive amounts of weight, with The Blue Bobber setting an initial standard at 920 pounds. Unfortunately, an additional passenger who would’ve upped the payload to 1,035 pounds accidentally knocked the boat off balance.

Naturally, there were plenty of engineer and number-crunching types of people on the boat teams. That made competition stiff. Team Trash Boat, for example, figured out mathematically what an upside-down bucket could hold and even tested the rig successfully on the Colorado River.

Ultimately, Columbine Market held the most weight with a simple design of inner tubes mounted under a big cardboard box that was lined on the outside with bubble wrap and plastic.

The $200 was handed out in cash to the three winning teams.

Dotsero resident Mike Leary, aboard Trash Boat, said they were going to use the money to take the kids to Six Flags Elitch Gardens in Denver.

Crevling said the students would vote on how to spend The New America School’s prize money.


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