Education

SLO Classical Academy students take third in solar boat competition

Watch SLO students' solar-powered boat in action

SLO Classical Academy students assemble and demonstrate their solar-powered boat at Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo.
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SLO Classical Academy students assemble and demonstrate their solar-powered boat at Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo.

For a group of San Luis Obispo students, sunny days provide more than just good weather — they also serve as a source of boat fuel.

A San Luis Obispo Classical Academy enrichment class recently built a watercraft that runs only on solar power and a battery — no oars or gasoline needed. The students showed off their creation on Friday in Sacramento at the Northern California Solar Regatta, where they took third place against about 20 other middle and high school teams.

The regatta has been held for the past five years, but this was SLOCA’s first time participating. The school’s team is led by teacher Chris de Firmian and is made up of about 10 fifth- through eighth-graders. Students started building their boat in January and spent the next few months learning the basics of engineering and teamwork.

“I made a promise to myself I wouldn’t tell them what to do or how they should do it,” de Firmian said. “They came up with everything. I was actually pretty nervous about their design — I wasn’t sure it was going to work.”

Teams could repurpose any kind of boat to run on energy from solar panels, which were provided by the competition. SLOCA students opted to build their boat from scratch using recycled wood, glue and screws.

The regatta, put on by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, included a series of minicompetitions, including slalom, sprint and endurance races. Teams were also required to give presentations about their boats and how they built them.

SLOCA’s team took first in the slalom race, which tested the boats’ maneuverability in the water.

I made a promise to myself I wouldn’t tell them what to do or how they should do it. They came up with everything.

Chris de Firmian, teacher

The students’ boat is a single-seat streamlined craft — de Firmian compared it to a canoe or a dory — with solar panels mounted in the front and back. The driver sits between the panels and steers using a handle. The students’ design placed the motor, which uses solar power to turn the boat’s propeller, in the front of the boat. De Firmian said this helped them “really shine” in the steering-heavy slalom competition.

Six students went to the competition, but the entire group worked on the boat. Eighth-grader Quinn Ferrarini said he helped figure out how to attach the solar panels, while eighth-grader Owen Lacey played a major role in configuring the steering.

Teamwork was a skill the group learned throughout the course of the project. Although there was some initial infighting, seventh-grader Austin Erb said the group learned that working together was the best way to go.

“All the fighting and bickering wasn’t going to get us anywhere,” Erb said.

After the group’s success at the regatta, de Firmian said he thought the group might take on a solar-powered go-kart next year. “By the end, they were a real team,” he said.

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