Boat-Building Teens Get Hands-On Teamwork, Engineering Lessons

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Boat-Building Teens Get Hands-On Teamwork, Engineering Lessons


Project U.S.E.’s Boatbuilding Program is an educational adventure. Middle and high school students work together to measure, cut, and build a 16­’ wooden canoe (or comparable vessel). Through the course of 12 weeks, they connect their experience with academic learning and explore the history, science, math, and art behind boat building. The program culminates in the launching of the student-­built boats on a local waterway.

Boatbuilding classes happen on­site at participating schools and organizations throughout northern and central New Jersey. The majority of the boats are built in Newark, Project U.S.E.’s “world headquarters”.

Many of today’s youth are disconnected from the waterways, which, in our region, usually run through every town. The Boatbuilding Program brings students back to the water in an exciting meaningful way. The students build a magical vessel while challenging their creativity and scientific knowhow.


Many questions arise while building the boat. Why does a boat float? How many people can fit in their boat? Why does a screw get hot after spinning a lot? Why does epoxy harden? Students find answers to these questions through research and a series of hands­-on experiments. Then, they get to test their theories using the real boat.

Boat builders regularly encounter unforeseen problems. For example, students at one school mis­-measured their boat, making the front of the boat impossible to assemble. Uh oh! Their solution was to shorten the boat by 3 inches so they could make the angles of the sides match. A student at another school accidentally cut halfway through one of the sides before the boat was put together. Oh no! There was not enough scrap to make an entire new piece. The group decided to create a “butt block” (a reinforcing piece of wood that strengthens an area) to securely join the pieces back together.

Students learn a variety of skills integral to building a boat. To begin, they need to master reading blueprints and charts to accurately measure their boat to 1/16th of an inch. Then, they are trained in safety and power tools. For example, they use a jigsaw to cut out the boat pieces and a drill to attach the pieces together. They learn about chemical reactions and ratios in order to properly mix epoxy (a waterproof glue that is the only thing that holds the boat together).

In addition to the hard skills required to physically build a boat, students also develop a variety of soft skills needed to work on a team. Students improve their ability to communicate, set goals and reach them, make collective decisions, and be an active member of the community. For instance, every group needs to collectively decide on a name and paint design for the boat by a certain date. This may involve brainstorming, electing a design leader, and making a consensus.

Students are psyched to test their boats at the Launch, when all groups in the area convene for a celebration at a local waterway. Wearing brightly colored PFDs (AKA life vests), each boatbuilding team proudly hoists their boat high into the air and carries it to the water. They anxiously place their boat in the water and see it float for the first time. Students nervously step into the boat and take a seat. The crowd passes them paddles, shoves them from shore, and cheers when they see them paddle their boat for the first time! Pride rushes over their faces as they take their boat for its maiden voyage.

To learn more, visit the Project U.S.E. website.

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Marie Reedell

Marie Reedell started working with Project U.S.E. in 2008, ready for adventure. After quickly learning to build a boat, she began to teach others to do so, too. Marie led the Boatbuilding program, guiding students in building dozens of wooden boats. They all floated. Marie also developed a few urban greening programs for Project U.S.E. involving maintaining Newark parks, rooftop gardening, micro farming, entrepreneurship, and bicycling. Marie left Project U.S.E. in 2012 to be home with her baby... and then another baby. She returned in 2014.

Marie holds a BA in Visual Arts and Mathematics (with a concentration in pedal powered devices) from Rutgers College. Marie is a proud mother of two who has an assortment of hobbies, including riding her bicycle, crafts, cooking and baking, exploring the outdoors, building custom bicycle frames, and farming.

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