Solar boat racing provides hands-on learning for students

When you were a high school student, how did you prefer to learn your science: formulas on the board and text books, or hands-on experiments involving building things (or maybe even blowing things up, or dropping items from high distances)? Yeah, I thought so… Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District has provided a hands-on opportunity for kids throughout the area to learn about engineering principles, solar power and electrical systems, and even water pollution and other broad environmental issues through its annual Solar Cup boat races.

A seven-month program, the Solar Cup offers teams of students the chance not just to race 16-foot, canoe-like boats that run on solar power, but to engineer and build them. While the teenagers may look forward to the day when they take their creation to Lake Skinner in Temecula Valley to participate in 90-minute endurance races and 200 yard sprints, they’re also learning a lot along the way. Walnut High School teacher Mike Yamashiro told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune “It’s total problem solving. You are given challenges, building a boat from wood, making solar panels, an entire electrical system – there is a lot of engineering, mechanical and electrical. And team work is very important.”

The eighth season of the Solar Cup has just kicked off, and 36 teams will participate (making it the largest solar boat competition in the US). The water district provides each team with $4000 to cover expenses in building their boats, as well as training sessions for teachers. The races themselves will be held May 14-16, 2010.

Know of other programs like this that let kids do the kinds of things kids like to do… while teaching them a few lessons about science and the environment along the way? Share them with us… in the comments.

Image credit: Solar Cup 2009