Houston-Area Students Test Physics, Engineering Skills At UH Boat Race

More than 100 Houston-area teens will sink or sail when they put their physics acumen to the test for an April 10 cardboard boat race at the University of Houston.

Teams from nine local high schools will row their hand-made vessels across the university’s Olympic-size swimming pool in the Extreme Boating Regatta, sponsored by UH’s Houston-Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (H-LSAMP).

Using only cardboard and duct tape, the students have spent the past few weeks applying the lessons they learned in physics class to build boats they hope are buoyant, stable and seaworthy – or at least pool-worthy.

“Students are making connections between concepts in physics and what actually happens with their boat, whether it sails or capsizes,” said Robert Dubois, a visiting assistant professor of physics at UH who directs the department’s outreach efforts.

The regatta, funded by a donation from the energy company BP, is intended to encourage students at predominately minority and underprivileged high schools to study science and engineering. In preparation for the event, Dubois has visited the participating schools to give a 90 minute crash course in physics classes on buoyancy concepts that students will need to know to build sturdy boats.

The torque, ballast, center of gravity and width of the boat must be just right or it could topple, Dubois said, and participating teams seeking any competitive edge have devoured every instruction.

“They’re asking lots of good questions, they’re really getting this,” he said.

The race will feature 23 teams (four students each) from nine high schools including Austin, MacArthur, KIPP, Hightower, Manvel, Eastwood, Kempner, Washington and South Houston.

In a series of heats inside UH’s natatorium teams must paddle across 50 meters without sinking. The team with the best time will win a $600 prize. Second and third place finishers will win $400 and $200, respectively, and a $100 prize will go to the team with the most unique boat design.

The event begins at 10am.

The race is the newest outreach effort of H-LSAMP, a well-established and federally-funded program between UH and local schools to increase the number minorities studying science and engineering. This includes recruitment, tutoring and financial assistance. Since it began 10 years ago, the number of minority undergraduates receiving science or engineering degrees from UH has risen 50 percent.