GSO, Central Falls students find a little boat can go a long way

Boat launched from Central Falls schools finds its way to coast of England

Dec. 5, 2022

A message in a bottle: we all dream about finding one. What if it was a little bit larger, and actually a small treasure-filled boat?

Imagine the surprise of a couple of dog walkers when they discovered such a vessel on their local beach in late November in Christchurch, Dorset, on the south coast of England. The boat landed on Avon Beach. News of the boat created fanfare upon its arrival with the story even making BBC news.

The ship sailed all the way from Rhode Island, part of a joint effort between the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography and students in Central Falls, Rhode Island working with the nonprofit Educational Passages.

The boat may be small, but there is nothing minimal about its impact.

Early this year, the URI Graduate School of Oceanography teamed with students in Central Falls to build the boat, named Inspiration after the city’s slogan, Diversity That Inspires. Students discussed their favorite ocean animals, tested the science of making a boat float, and tossed around terms like ballast, keels and currents. The third graders built the boat using a kit from Educational Passages and worked with GSO graduate students and staff to learn how to build a seaworthy vessel and install a sail, with several ocean science lessons along the way.

URI Ph.D. student Gabrielle Armin conducts a science lesson with students in Central Falls, prior to the Inspiration’s launch.

Kim Alix, a third-grade teacher at Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Central Falls, says she initially approached the University as a way to get her students excited about learning about ocean and science topics. “These children are enthusiastic and drink in knowledge,” she comments.

GSO’s Andrea Gingras, assistant director of public engagement, worked with Alix’s students all year and suggested the idea of working on a Miniboat to set sail in the Atlantic Ocean to help students better understand the ocean and the human connections to it.

“We said ‘Absolutely!’” Alix recalls.

Fellow teacher Amy Carney welcomed graduate students from URI to her third-grade classroom at Raices Dual Language Academy in Central Falls, where students learned directly from GSO scientists about ocean currents, different fish species and the temperature of the ocean. URI graduate students set up centers around the classroom so students could investigate different science experiments related to the ocean. “The scientists who came were wonderful with our students,” she says. “They were also all female which made a huge impact on our girls. It’s very important that our girls see smart, wonderful young female scientists as positive role models.”

Alison Murray, an engineering teacher at Central Falls High School—and winner of the 2022 Rhode Island STEAM Educator Award—also joined in. Her students installed sensors on the boat while the younger students helped to paint, decorate, and varnish it. “This was an invaluable experience,” she says, “because my students got to do a real engineering project where the sensors were actually deployed, taking real data.” Murray’s students were excited because their sensor packages worked until landfall on both of their boats, meaning their sensors were connected properly and sealed well enough to stand up to a transatlantic voyage and weather. With a sense of pride, they watched the daily data reports coming in from the sensors as the boats traversed the Atlantic.

Any proper boat launch requires fanfare and this little boat got it—the elementary students signed their names, contributed artwork, and helped pick the boat’s name, the very fitting Inspiration. A hatch on the boat was filled with items from the students and the Central Falls community.

The vessel looked small on the waves when it set out on its journey, but like Rhode Island itself, it was a small thing that achieved big things. The burgundy boat bravely set off to cross the choppy waters bearing the message, “Say Yes to CF.” The boat departed south of Newport, headed northeast across the North Atlantic and made landfall at Mudeford, England, traveling by the Isles of Scilly and through the English Channel, providing a geography lesson to students as well.

Andrew Davies, who is from the UK, teaches in the Graduate School of Oceanography and enjoyed hearing news of the Miniboat’s arrival in his home country. “The Miniboat washing up on a beach on the southern England coast really shows just how connected the world is, and how currents can connect populations across the ocean,” he says.

The boat traveled more than 9,300 miles (15,000km) in 245 days. Peter Waine discovered the boat on Avon Beach while walking his dog. A letter inside directed the finder to bring the boat to a nearby school, which he promptly did, bringing it home to his wife, Carly, a teacher at Tiptoe Primary in Lymington, where the children were excited to welcome its arrival to their school.

Modern oceanographers use technology to monitor waterways; accordingly, students used technology to track and follow the craft on its journey.

“The students kept track of it,” says Alix. “They were concerned about all the loops the boat was doing. When I told them this past Monday about the boat landing in the UK, they were so excited. They couldn’t believe that their little boat, with some Central Falls memorabilia, landed across the Atlantic Ocean!”

Now Alix’s students are enjoying the chance to share their story, even with the BBC. Next week, they plan to Zoom with their peers at Tiptoe Academy in the UK and are excited to be able to meet their transatlantic friends. “This tiny boat has made a huge impact on my students and the community,” says Alix.

After that, Inspiration will be returned to the sea by Tiptoe School to continue its travels around the world.

Inspiration is the second Miniboat built and launched by Central Falls students. The Square Mile launched from URI’s research vessel, Endeavor, in October 2021, and was recovered on June 8 (World Ocean Day) from the waters off of Faial Island in the Azores, just as its GPS battery was failing. Similar to the Inspiration, the Square Mile will be repaired and relaunched in the near future to continue its journey.

GSO Dean Paula Bontempi says she loves the Miniboat program because students and teachers create seafaring vessels and connect with others across the sea, while collecting valuable data about the ocean and atmosphere.

“The program is a powerful way to engage students who have been underrepresented in science here in the U.S.,” she says. “It’s been our honor to work with the creative and curious students in Central Falls as they learn about oceanography, engineering and ocean fields, all of which are essential skills for the growing blue economy in Rhode Island and beyond. We are thrilled to see these students make connections with peers an ocean away.”

Anyone interested in learning more about ocean and coastal exploration, discovery and research is invited to attend a special session on the URI Narragansett Bay Campus on Dec. 7, 6:30-8 p.m. Faculty and graduate students will share their research through posters illustrating the impact of climate change on North Atlantic right whales, the health of Narragansett Bay, the latest in seafloor mapping technology, and more. Details and registration are available here. 

The GSO Miniboat program is made possible by the Devereux Ocean Foundation, Inc.