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Murray Journal

Sink or swim: Murray High physics students put their knowledge to the test

Aug 22, 2019 02:01PM ● By Julie Slama

Two Murray High physics students paddle across Murray’s outdoor pool to test their skill in building a cardboard boat. (Photo courtesy of Murray High School)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When students enroll for physics at Murray High, they know their final projects will be like no other.

At the end of the school year, every year, students can join other high school students to participate in the Utah State Physics Day at Lagoon, where they can complete a workbook, which asks students how much potential energy a roller coaster has at the top; or what is the angular velocity of the carousel on the outside edge of the ride; or to calculate the number of joules they gained from their hotdog lunch. 

Students also could take part in some fun competitions, such as an egg drop from the 60-foot sky ride or building a mini-roller coaster out of tongue depressors and toothpicks.

“It’s all in fun, but it’s engaging and putting what they learned into use,” said Katarina Nielson, who has taught physics at Murray High the past couple years. “They most likely won’t look at Lagoon or any other amusement park the same way again.”

However, what many students look forward to is the traditional cardboard boat test. Students use cardboard and duct tape to design and build a boat to paddle their group across the length of Murray’s outdoor pool. 

“In the fall, the class is quite strenuous, but in the second half, we’re using what we learned on projects. With the cardboard boats, students work in teams and have a six-page packet to adhere to. They’re self-sufficient at this point, they know the principles, and this is how they can test them,” Nielson said.

As the students work together, they learn to collaborate and know there needs to be a limit in the number of their group. They are also given the advice to use multiple layers of cardboard as water soaks into it, which ultimately will weaken the boat’s construction and durability.

“They realize that if it’s just one person, it’s only one idea so it’s better to work as a team. However, it’s hard if there’s six people in a group, because they’d have to paddle 900 pounds across the pool,” she said.

This year, student groups brought the 40 boats to the pool in the 50-degree light rain, trying to get their boats across the pool before lightning started.

“A couple groups were affected by the rain and lightning. We had some groups make it, including a group of five, but it was cold, wet — and definitely memorable,” she said. 

Nielson said it’s always fun and recounted how three girls who were best friends giggled, cried and laughed before screaming as their boat, which was constructed too narrow, flipped sideways and got them all wet.

Another group, this time, boys, had their boat sink in the shallow end right at the start.

“It was a blast to work with a group and design our boat so it would carry us across the pool,” senior Caleb Black said. “We walked our boat to the pool, and it must have looked like a coffin crossing State Street. I thought it would be fun to paddle in the rain, but I think our boat took on too much water getting there because when Michael (Durrant) was getting in, his foot went right through and hit the bottom of the pool. We were out before we even got in.”

While nobody knows who quite started the cardboard boat tradition, physics teachers Tony Romanello, Kristi Ratliff, Alison Bulson and even current principal Scott Wihongi, all had their students embrace the traditional cardboard boat race.

“That physics boat project has been going on as long as I can remember,” Wihongi said. “I was teaching in the science department 20 years ago, and it was going on then.”

And while Nielson packed her boxes and files this summer, it is expected the tradition will continue.

“It’s usually a fun day out of the classroom to relax and see the engineering principles come to life,” she said. “This year, though, it was a race before the storm.”