Young People Catch Waves, An Enthusiasm For STEM at Courageous Sailing

At United Way of Massachusetts Bay, we know that middle school is the period when many young people start falling out of love with their math and science courses. We also know that keeping kids interested in STEM prepares them for success. (STEM is the term used to refer collectively to the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) As they begin thinking about college or career training, continuous exposure to STEM experiences can help guide them toward the jobs of the future.

As part of our mission to help kids succeed, United Way supports organizations like Courageous Sailing, which provide young people with thrilling, hands-on experiences that foster a love of STEM and open the doors to a STEM-related career path. Through a combination of funding, providing workplace field trips to STEM corporate partners, and connecting them to STEM professionals excited to volunteer at their program, United Way ensures this nonprofit community sailing center has the resources they need to accomplish their goals. They also work with Boston After School & Beyond to receive data-informed professional development and coaching.

Growing Up With STEM

The young people who grow up while taking Courageous Sailing classes can spend much of their childhood engaged in STEM learning. Jennifer Bode, Education Director at Courageous Sailing, notes that she knows former young sailors who are now studying environmental science, marine biology, and aerodynamic engineering.

Young people, of course, have to actually enjoy the courses first. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t stick with them like they do. Bodde describes a pair of students that she’s taught:

“I have a brother and sister in the program that come two day a week. They literally do the same lesson twice every week. They really enjoy something fun and productive to do in the afternoons. They enjoy being able to form a relationship with the other kids, and with me, as a supportive adult, interested in what is going on with them.”

Summer Programs Create A Long-Term Commitment

Bodde is proud of the fact that Courageous Sailing offers its young members a decade or more of programming so they can stay involved. “One thing that’s cool is we’re very committed not to having just a short-term relationship with kids.”

Sailing might seem like an odd place to foster a love of STEM, but two extraordinary summer programs from Courage Sailing are striving to do just that.

Swim Sail Science. At Courageous Sailing, inspiring STEM experiences first become available fo 4th and 5th graders through Swim Sail Science. Part of the Boston-wide Summer Learning Project, a partnership between youth programs like Courageous and Boston Public Schools to prevent summer learning loss in economically marginalized students, this 5-week, 2-summer program offers students an exciting mix of sailing lessons, swimming instruction, and academics. Students are encouraged to think critically about environmental topics in their language arts classes, analyze data in their math classes, and perform scientific inquiries in their sailing time (for example: collecting water samples).

For these students, science and math topics have already been integrated into stimulating, hands-on experiences at a young age, providing a foundation of enjoyment they can build on in the coming years.

Steps to Lead. A summer program for kids who’ve graduated from either Swim Sail Science or Courageous Sailing’s Step 1 introductory sailing class, Steps to Lead boasts an enriching, deep dive into STEM topics over the course of six Steps, or levels. Students enjoy instruction from organizations like Save The Harbor Save The Bay, which helps them explore the topic of marine biology using real-world instruments such as dockside lobster traps. Later on, students get to engage in compelling activities like boat building and kite design, exploring physics, math, and engineering concepts along the way.

While students don’t need to have taken Swim Sail Science to take Steps to Lead, for those who have, the program serves as an excellent continuation of Courageous’ STEM-focused programming. While taking these classes, interest in math and science doesn’t have a chance to fade away during the summer months. Rather, that passion is reinforced, summer after summer.

The Reach Initiative

Launched by Courageous Sailing in 2012, The Reach Initiative addresses the barriers which have historically prevented children from marginalized communities from participating in high-quality summer learning opportunities. Because of The Reach Initiative, Courage Sailing’s youth programs are free of charge to those in need.

But that’s not all. Reach Initiative programs include meals, bus transportation, swimming lessons, and full-day care for working families that need an extended day. They are also overseen by a Director of Youth Programs and Outreach with a background in social work.

Bodde points to the swimming lessons as a big component of The Reach Initiative’s effectiveness at creating access. “You wouldn’t wake up and join a sailing program if you can’t swim. That’s a barrier for many urban kids.”

Branching Out Into After School

This past fall, Courageous Sailing added a new program for young people, in collaboration with BoSTEM, a coalition of nonprofits that connect middle schoolers to STEM experiences. That program was STEMSail. STEMSail builds interest in STEM and STEM careers through sailing lessons and sailing-related challenges. It is Courageous Sailing’s first foray into after-school programming for older youth.

STEMSail focuses on such topics as buoyancy, aerodynamics, air pressure, “just the physics,” Bodde says, “of how an object moves through water.” The lessons take place on water as well as land. On land, students build land-boats, or carts with sails, and are challenged to make them go upwind. Kite-building reinforces the ideas of lift and aerodynamics.

Bodde acknowledges that because it is an after school program, STEMSail faces different challenges than the summer programming.  “After school is an interesting context. You’re asking kids to do something totally optional. It’s very much on the program to make it worth their while in terms of being interesting, and in terms of being a supportive community of peers. You have to make sure that they’re learning stuff and it’s fun.”

A Hands-On Approach Wins The Day

Bodde explains that, at first, students in the area weren’t enthusiastic about the STEMSail program. “It was a hard time to get participants, and get people signing up.”

Their minds changed, however, when she introduced them to the hands-on nature of the projects they would be undertaking:

“When i went into science classes, I gave kids big dowel and tape. I told them to make it upright and sturdy on their desk. I made them work as a group to make it happen. ‘Can you figure out how this is like boat design… look at that, a triangle is a stable shape.’”

She adds: “You can’t just say hey, there’s sailing, and there’s gonna be sailing. The kids could see that hands-on engineering challenges were a fun way of approaching the science behind it.

“That’s when they got excited.”