Boatbuilding, biology, robotics and the zoo

XPlore 2017 engages young minds in the summertime

7/31/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

​On a recent muggy Tuesday morning, the sounds of sawing wood, power drills and the occasional giggle greet a visitor to the Science and Math Institute at Point Defiance.

Under the trees behind a row of portable buildings, a gaggle of middle-schoolers learn basic woodworking skills by making their own small projects. They’re part of XPlore 2017’s boatbuilding class, and at the end of their week in the woods they’ll launch a full-sized wooden boat—12 to 16 feet long—into Puget Sound.

For now, however, the nascent shipbuilders start smaller.

“Some of them are building boxes, some of them shelves,” said Science and Math Institute Humanities Teacher Matt Sherls, XPlore’s instruction team leader. “Some of them are making little totems they designed themselves.”

Xplore uses instructors and alumni from both the School of the Arts and the Science & Math Institute to teach content-specific mini-courses that engage young learners in new and creative ways. More than 500 elementary students from 16 schools enrolled in the program this year, and for the first time, students from 11 middle schools as well. Besides the boatbuilders, other classes cover marine biology and a “zoo and trail” course with guided trail walks and trips to the Point Defiance Zoo to learn about animals. Another section of XPlore, at the School of the Arts downtown, features music, visual arts and dance.

Sessions take place Monday through Thursday. Each week, students from different elementary and middle schools attend.

Twins Janay and Kabila Walker, about to enter seventh grade at Mason Middle School, have never worked with wood before—but you wouldn’t know it from watching

​Madison Rosenberg works on a Barbie bed for her sister Holly
​ ​​​​them. They’re surrounded by tools—planer, power drill, rasp, and a wicked-looking double-edged Japanese-style hand saw. Every piece of wood gets carefully and securely clamped to the picnic table in front of them before they work on it, and neither hesitates when they reach confidently for tools.

“It’s a shelf,” said Janay, fitting some pieces together as her sister carefully cut another with the medieval-looking saw. The twins said they’d already finished one box and wanted to do something larger.

Across the table, soon-to-be Mason sixth-grader Madison Rosenberg and her brother Jeremiah, an incoming seventh-grader, sketch possible projects. Jeremiah draws a circle and fills in a smiley face with a crooked-toothed grin.

“It’s an emoji,” he said, laughing. “But it’s kind of creepy.”

Madison, meantime, ponders a gift for her younger sister, Holly, currently in one of the Marine Studies classes taking place elsewhere in the complex. Finally, she settles on a Barbie bed.

“She’ll like this,” Madison said, sketching out a crib-like bed with a footboard and headboard.

Some of the students exhibit first-day shyness and seem disengaged, in the beginning, but soon the activity all around and the encouragement of XPlore’s student instructors gets them sawing and sanding and drilling away like old pros.

Aaron Rosner, about to begin his senior year at the Science and Math Institute, started volunteering with Xplore as a ninth-grader. His older sister, Maggie, now graduated and at college, taught the robotics class last year.

“I got interested in this because I did robotics courses in the summertime every year, from second to seventh grade,” said Rosner, one of the volunteers supervising the boatbuilding course today because the regular instructor couldn’t be there. “I remember that sense of wonder, being blown away by what the robots could do. I want to help make that sense of discovery possible for younger kids.”

Fellow volunteer Jennifer Chapul, an incoming SAMI sophomore, likes working with tools—and kids.

“I like it here,” she said, looking around the young carpenters working away in the bright clearing and forest setting. “I like using the tools, and giving tips on safety. I’ve fixed things before, but never built things like this.”

Another class passes by, on its way to the woods for a nature hike. SAMI sits on the former site of the Camp Six Logging Museum, and the wide-graded lanes where railroad tracks once took a small locomotive through the park make perfect nature trails. A few minutes later, the hikers amble back, each with an armload of rocks to paint for the Tacoma Smiles project.

Jeremiah, meantime, clamps his wooden emoji down on the opposite end of a board his sister wants to cut. “I have to put up with this every day,” Madison said, with a sigh. Just then the class containing Holly, the younger sister, walks by going from one portable classroom to another. An exchange of waves and shouted hellos ensues.

Samantha Harrison, a PLU graduate and Americorps volunteer, holds part of the Barbie bed together for Madison while some wood glue sets. Harrison spent most of her service at the School of the Arts, teaching a time-management and study skills course, and came to XPlore when school let out for the summer.

“I really like this,” she said. “It’s pushed me out of my comfort zone. I’m a geologist in training, and eventually I’ll probably do project management, but I’d like to get into outreach, as well, and this is good practice.”

Finished with their shelf after putting the last pieces together and doing some careful sanding, the twins move on to build another box. “This one is for the teachers,” said Janay…or possibly Kabila.

Self-directed learning forms the core of the XPlore experience, right down to the choice of courses.

“I was going to do the Maker Space class,” said Madison, sanding the headboard of Holly’s new Barbie bed. “But then they told me that’s more of a marine science class. And I really like boating, so I decided to do this.”