Creating Community with ROVs and Miniboats

The Columbia River Maritime Museum received a grant of $20,000 from the NW STEM Hub. We talked to Education Director Nate Sandal about what the grant has meant for the museum and the students in the region.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Tell me a bit about your organization and programming. 

The Columbia River Maritime Museum is a private nonprofit so we are supported, not by the government, but by ticket sales and donations. We provide free programming to every single student in Clatsop County. We also provide free outreach programming to students in nine counties in Oregon and Washington for free. We serve about 15,000 students between our outreach and on-site programming. That is with a staff of two--myself and one other educator. 

The outreach  programming is called Museum in the Schools. We have a teacher who four days a week is in a different school in one  of those nine counties. They are 50 minute programs and there is always hands-on experiment or art projects as well as handling artifacts and learning new things. Every year we choose five programs to offer to the schools and then schools can choose up to four of those five programs for us to present to them throughout the year. 

There are also a number of on-site labs and programs for schools. Check out the website here. 

The grant funds are going towards ROV Club, ROV camp, the miniboat program, and expanding the Museum in the Schools program. You can’t help but be excited when you hear Nate talk about what these programs mean to kids. 

Q: How has the Grant from the STEM Hub impacted your program? 

Well, the grant has actually impacted us quite significantly because it is allowing us to do a program that we were not able to do this year because we just did not have the funds. That program is our ROV club, which is a very impactful program for the students who are involved…

The grant allowed us to be able to fund the food for all the kids who come. It funds the staff time as well as the robots and all of the parts. To grant allowed us to provide this opportunity for our kids at no cost to our department and no cost to the students which was really great. Almost all of the kids who participate are from families that wouldn't typically have these sorts of opportunities. 

For ROV club, they spend 13 weeks, at least one night a week, at the Museum. Typically, it was like two to three nights a week at the Museum. They would come, we would feed them either lunch or dinner depending on if it was on a weekend or a weeknight and they would just sit there for hours and build a robot or do their marketing materials. 

Last year, at the end of the 13 weeks we took them on an overnight trip down to Lincoln City where they got to compete in a real competition with their robot, which was really great because it worked the whole time. They were successful and completed some of the missions and it was just a real team-building thing for the kids. You know, we like to look at the way we spend the money and we can put in $5000 and we can impact a lot of kids in a small way or we can take that $5,000 and affect a small number of kids and a very impactful way. That is what the ROV Club is--it’s like another home for these kids. 

One kid was going through a real tough time at home and the week before the competition when we were scheduling meetings, like every night, she was like ‘Hey, make them every night because it gets me out of the house where I don't want to be.’ If we could do ROV Club all year long, it would be amazing.

This is a program that we cut last year. The grant is making it happen again.

The grant is also funding summer ROV camp for students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay the $400 to attend. 

Another $5000 went into the miniboat program, which is another one of our very impactful programs, but also expensive. The $5,000 will cover the cost of one miniboat for one school. 

The students build a five-foot-long sailboat over 10 weeks. I come visit for an hour and a half once a week on the same day the same time over that period and the students self-select them in themselves into eight different teams. One team is in charge of the hull construction,  one is in charge of the deck construction, one is in charge of the sail, one in charge of the electronics, and another team is in charge of all communication, including writing for the website and communicating with their partner school in Japan. 

At the end, both boats are launched in the Pacific Ocean from each side and we're trying to get them to cross the ocean. They have GPS locators on them and a website where everybody can actually go and see the boats and the students communicate throughout the year and make predictions about what's happening with their boats and where it will be in a week.

Another $5000 will go into our Museum of the Schools program. Again, that is the program where our Educator is at a different school four days a week over those nine counties. And that's a really heavy travel cost program. That money goes into buying some supplies for everybody in the programs and also covering some of the fuel cost of getting our educator to some of those schools in the Northwest. 

Q: How do these programs change the students who participate?

For the miniboat program we typically pick schools that are underserved and many of the students who participate might not have ever left Oregon or the county. It blows my mind when there are kids who live an hour from the ocean and they are like, "Oh, I have never been to the ocean." By having a partner school in Japan, they're learning about a whole other culture by communicating with these students. When I go over to Japan I film everything and take pictures.  

We have all these pictures and every kid wants to see pictures of the bathrooms, and the cafeteria, and them brushing their teeth after. So after I come back I give a whole program on what a school day in Japan looks like. Exposing them to that culture and making those new friends is really important. 

We are also giving them five thousand dollars worth of materials and the students make every decision about how that boat is built, what color it is, and where it's being launched. Every important decision is being made by those students. There are times when they have different opinions and they have to not only make the sail, but that they have to decide the artwork that goes on it, what's it going to what's it going to look like, and the kids will come to me and and say they can't figure out how to get along. For me it's amazing because I say, "Not my boat, not my problem. Your boat, your problem." They look at me like, "What do you mean? You're not going to solve the problems?"  Then you see them kind of come back together and have to huddle and work things out on their own.

It's a real skill and it wasn't something when I originally developed the program I was shooting for, but seeing the way that these students work, it's all about teamwork. These individual teams they are all a spoke in the wheel but then they all have to come together. If the hull is one color pattern and the deck is completely contrasting, the kids have to decide, is that okay? We've had boats that really clash and we've had boats go together in a cohesive way and it's up to the students to figure that out on their own.

We also have kids use power tools for the first time. We are having a fifth grade girl, for example, using drills and using toxic chemicals, with all the precautions and the mask and everything, but they're using things that adult boat builders use. It is not a play toy, it's the real deal. We don't want Barnacles growing on the bottom of the boat, so we have to use special paints and the students have to decide what level of copper to have in the paints to keep the Barnacles off depending on the temperature of the water, depending on where they think the boats going to go. 

There are hundreds and hundreds of decisions that have to be made and students make every single one of them.

The students are also going home and they're telling their family all the exciting things they are doing. I get letters from parents saying that their kid hates school, but the kid pops out of bed on Tuesdays because they know that the Maritime Museum is coming. And it what they live for,  it changes their whole attitude and their parents track the boats and grandparents track the boats and it is just a real, exciting thing. 

Q: What kinds of support or resources would you need to continue growing your programming or make sure it continues to thrive in the future?

Our Museum in the Schools, our outreach program, was fully booked for the school year by January. But we want to really expand to new schools, so what we really need help with is getting the word out about our programming. Not only about our outreach, but our on-site programs as well. We want schools to realize they can come to the Museum and it can be a whole fun field trip, even if it's an hour-and-a-half bus ride. We have tons of schools that come from the Portland area, but we don't ever really get school from Beaverton and Hillsboro. We want them to know that we are an option, and a quality option. 

We also need help getting the word out about funding. For example, a couple weeks ago the NW STEM Hub sent me an email connecting me to someone they thought I should talk to. The next day I got an e-mail saying that she had reached out to a company and asked them to make a ten thousand dollars donation to us for miniboats.

I understand that we're probably not going to get money as an organization from the STEM Hub every year, but the support of people telling people about what we're doing helps us get to people who have money they want to give to programs they like. Spreading the word about what we do is one of the best ways to support us. We will never say no to the money, but spreading the word leads to more money. 

Q: How would you describe the value of the NW STEM Hub?

I was just laughing the other night because it isn't my job to raise money. But because of the STEM Hub over the last five months, we’ve gotten thirty thousand dollars directed into our programs. I also had a private donor give me a quarter of a million dollars this year. One of the things the donor really liked is that the STEM Hub and other organizations are seeing what we're doing and they want us to reach more kids and we were at capacity or over capacity. 

When I got hired into the department, the outreach program had done 47 programs the year prior. In the first year that I took over we did 250 programs. This year it is going to be 412. 

That doesn't happen without the STEM Hub. We couldn't have raised those numbers and raised awareness without the Hub's help. 

If you want to connect to the Museum or talk with Nate about any of the programs, you can reach out to him through email

Bianca Valvezan