Aidan Burke knelt beside a temporary pool on the playground at New Roads School and prepared for the moment of truth.

After delicately setting on the water a small boat that he had spent several days designing and building, the fourth-grader paused briefly.

Then, with the “Chariots of Fire” theme song playing over loudspeakers, he let it go and watched with joy as the wind from three fans behind him propelled it across the pool.

“I put these corks here because I thought they would be good for stabilizing it,” Burke said, pointing out the features of his creation after a successful launch last Friday. “I put this bigger sail here because it catches more wind. And then I have a daggerboard that helps to keep it straight. … At first it kept tipping over, but I added this weight and it helped a lot.”

Burke and dozens of other K-5 students at the Santa Monica-based private school’s West Los Angeles campus were participating in the inaugural Flotilla Day, which aimed to foster science and engineering skills while boosting environmental awareness.

Using recycled materials, simple machines and critical thinking, students crafted sailboats and paddleboats that they tested on three man-made lakes outside.

There was coordinated commotion in the workshop adjacent to the playground as children readied their boats for the water, some of them tweaking designs that required improvements.

“We have a very hands-on program,” science teacher Stu Scolnik said. “Kids get to use what they learn in their classrooms. It’s practical application of those skills. It gets them thinking critically.”

The cross-curricular activity aligned with New Roads’ mission to minimize one-use plastic and promote sustainability. Materials for Flotilla Day were procured through Trash for Teaching, which repurposes excess supplies for educational projects, as well as from discard piles at construction sites and homes.

With the assistance of measuring tools and mechanical cutters, students fashioned boats out of little more than water bottles, fiberboard panels and corrugated plastic. Corks and hooks provided balance and stability. Denim swatches became carefully calculated sails.

Amid the buzzing workshop, one girl approached Scolnik and asked for glue.

“No glue today,” he told her. “Use a rubber band. Use a clip. Come up with a different solution. Try a knot.”

Back on the playground, students took turns launching their boats in the three temporary pools.

Third-grade students Julia Rottenberg, Dasha Pechersky, Sammie Brookes, Alex Brookes and Oona Summerford-Ng enthusiastically tested their boats, then explained the decisions that went into their designs.

Pechersky said she didn’t have much luck on her first attempt, but she added a piece of wood to enhance her vessel’s stability for a successful second launch.

Sammie Brookes also amended her initial design, making her boat more sturdy by pouring water into the empty plastic bottles that served as its base.

Asked what they learned on Flotilla Day, Rottenberg and her classmates burst energetically into a refrain: “Reduce, reuse, recycle!”

Contact Jeff Goodman by phone at 310-573-8351, via email at or on Twitter.

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