Blog: Boat building flows with St. Peter’s School students in Philadelphia

philadelphia waterborne riverways

Photo: Through its Winter Boat Building program, Philadelphia Waterborne, a member of RiverWays, teaches students to craft real wooden boats.

When Sandra C. Rekstad stepped into the wooden boat two summers ago bobbing on the Delaware River, she was immediately impressed.

Rekstad, STEAM coordinator and Upper School Math and Science teacher at St. Peter’s School in Philadelphia, had joined a cohort of teachers piloting a new urban watershed curriculum designed by the Philadelphia Water Department and Fairmount Water Works.

As part of the initial week-long training, the teachers were about to go out on the Delaware in 12.5 feet long, 4 feet wide wooden boats. But what impressed Rekstad wasn’t just the colorfully painted designs splashed across their hulls, it was the fact that the boats had been built by students as part of a for-school-credit program.

“After my experience out on the river, all I could think about was having a group of students build a rowboat,” Rekstad said. “…and that’s what we did.”

At St. Peter’s School, teachers are challenged to engage students and keep their education relevant and one way the school has done this is by using the city as a classroom. The St. Peter’s School’s science program, for example, has evolved to focus on the urban environment.

Soon Rekstad contacted master boat builder Nick Pagon, founder and director of Philadelphia Waterborne, an organization member of The Philadelphia Riverways Consortium. Working with Pagon, Rekstad drafted a proposal for her sixth graders to learn and apply their math, science and engineering lessons to boat building.

“My school’s administration loved the idea,” Rekstad said.

“As a teacher, it was such a satisfying feeling to see how surprised and proud the students and their parents were that they had built something tangible — not a model or re-creation, but real boats!”

The boats built through the Philadelphia Waterborne program are kept as a fleet at Bartram’s Garden, another member of Riverways, and are free for the public to use from spring through fall.

winter boat building philadelphia waterborne riverways

Photo: A teacher rows a boat built by students as part of the Winter Boat Building program at Philadelphia Waterborne.

According to Rekstad, the program has captured the attention of students who otherwise would not be interested in science class.

“I have one student this year who has regularly struggled with science,” Rekstad said, “and early on in the project, he said, ‘Mrs. Rekstad, this is the first time science is my favorite subject!’ If his family wants to leave early for the weekend, he won’t let them leave until he’s had his boat building block.

Another student last year said, “Working together as a class on a big project that we will all get to use and benefit from was my favorite part of the project. Just making it as a class made us all closer.”

“ For me,” Rekstad said, “hearing a student say, ‘Oh, we just did this in math class,’ while actually adding or subtracting fractions of inches is so gratifying.”

For more information on how to develop a boat building program at your school, contact Nick Pagon at