Boatbuilding class teaches Maine students math and science

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The Maine boatbuilding industry is becoming a place where young people can learn math and science, and the effort is one of many initiatives that state trade associations hope will get young people interested in marine industry careers.

The Bangor Daily News reported in a story today headlined “Teens learn science, math by building boats” that a Searsport District High School boatbuilding class has been beneficial to teens.

Erin Kilpatrick had never spent much time doing woodworking or using power tools until she took the class with nine other students at the high school. The class built two shellback dinghies that they successfully launched this week at the Searsport Town Dock.

“Two of my older brothers took the class before me,” Kilpatrick told the newspaper. “They recommended it because it was a really fun, hands-on class. And it was really awesome. I’m not sure that I will be a woodworker or anything like that, but it was really fun experiencing it. I never thought I’d do anything like that. And I made a boat.”

It was the sixth year that Troy boatbuilder Greg Rossel had taught students at the high school how to build the shellback dinghies, and the third year that his class was able to use the Hamilton Learning Center at the Penobscot Marine Museum as a dedicated space to do the often messy work. The students more than rose to the occasion, he said.

“We were able to do a lot more this year. It was just a really good class, and we were able to fit in more things,” Rossel said. “I had to make sure I had plenty of stuff to do. They’d finish a class and they’d want more. They did well.”

The class is advertised as a “practical laboratory” for students to learn the geometry of boatbuilding, applied physics and much more, according to the affable boatbuilder. This year, they learned about the organic chemistry of epoxy, a resin commonly used in boatbuilding, studied navigation and visited the Front Street Shipyard in Belfast to learn about the boatbuilding industry.

“It’s really the practical application of the things they may have learned in school,” Rossel said. “They use all of it. They have to work in a team. You have to demand quality — you can’t fink out on that. Other people are depending on them. The boats have to be seaworthy, and what’s more, the students get to be the first ones to go out in them.”

A selling point in Maine for the industry has been that marine industry jobs aren’t at risk of moving offshore, Maine Marine Trades Association director Susan Swanton told Trade Only in a report examining marine workforce shortages.

Maine received $15 million in federal funds a few years ago, which enabled the state to lay some groundwork around incumbent workers and raise the skills of current workers. Now Swanton is focused on working with career counselors and tech training to attract those entry-level employees.

“There are still kids out there who really want to work with their hands,” Swanton said. “And if you’re going to fix something that is owned by someone locally, those jobs can’t really be offshored. There’s a little bit of security there. Fortunately we do have some cachet here in Maine around boatbuilding,” although the state still struggles with the cultural stigma around service and technician work.

Swanton thinks that classes such as this can help introduce people to a career they might not have known about otherwise.

“We just don’t let kids know there are opportunities out there for them in this industry and a lot of other industries,” she said. “The other part of the awareness paradigm is that parents don’t know and educators don’t know. So I think it’s incumbent on our industry to make all those people know.”

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