Milk cartons keep South End kids from going into the drink

There were Jason and the Argonauts. Then there were Squirrel and the Science Nuts. The ancient Greek hero and his legendary search for the Golden Fleece has nothing on a group of South End home-schoolers, whose own quest involved a few boards, some screws, some chicken wire, some duct tape and several hundred waxed-paper and plastic containers. Not to mention a few duct-taped raquetball rackets and plastic storage-bin covers on sticks for propulsion, some elbow grease, a lot of grey matter and a lake nearly half a mile wide.

The Science Nuts

The Science Nuts

GOSS LAKE — There were Jason and the Argonauts. Then there were Squirrel and the Science Nuts.

The ancient Greek hero and his legendary search for the Golden Fleece has nothing on a group of South End home-schoolers, whose own quest involved a few boards, some screws, some chicken wire, some duct tape and several hundred waxed-paper and plastic containers.

Not to mention a few duct-taped raquetball rackets and plastic storage-bin covers on sticks for propulsion, some elbow grease, a lot of grey matter and a lake nearly half a mile wide.

“We started with Archimedes,” physical-science instructor Ashley McConnaughey said. “It was just this whole hands-on, how-to, how-things-work idea.”

The plan was to use the theories of the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer to come up with a “floating vehicle” to propel across Goss Lake in a timely manner — in the same day, say.

McConnaughey said the students modeled their idea after the annual Milk Carton Derby at Green Lake in Seattle, constructing a craft primarily of plastic milk cartons and other recycling.

In on the project were Emily Anderson, 12; Christopher Anderson, 10; Eric Anderson, 7; Avery Wilson, 13; Christopher Wilson, 11; Steven Wilson, 9; Hannah McConnaughey, 11; and Haley McConnaughey, 8. Official mascot was Caitlyn Anderson, 5, who would go along for the ride. Nickolay Hacking, 15, participated up to the point where he had to leave on a family trip.

“They’re truly a wide-ranging, bright bunch of kids,” McConnaughey said.

They started by studying Archimedes’ theories of displacement and buoyancy, then began collecting and sealing floatable containers; milk containers, yogurt containers, pudding containers, tofu containers, water containers, juice containers, soda containers, soy containers.

They weighed themselves and the wooden planking, then calculated how many containers they would need to float the weight of all nine of them, including their life jackets, paddles and hair scrunchies. The rule of thumb was one pound displaces one pint of water.

They were hoping to rig a propulsion system from old bicycle parts, but were foiled at the last minute by a square gizmo that wouldn’t quite fit into a round thingy, something like that. So, paddles it was.

The components of the boat were built in McConnaughey’s driveway at Beverly Beach in Freeland, the students working eight- to nine-hour days for the week leading up to last Friday’s afternoon launch.

Using the containers and chicken wire, they constructed two pontoons about 9 feet long, then cut boards they could fashion into two ladder configurations, which would be fastened together for a deck about 6 feet wide.

“The adults didn’t tell them what to do,” McConnaughey said. “We just had them think about physics.”

They named the finished product Squirrel.

“This squirrel was up in a tree and kept dropping cones on it,” said Christopher Wilson. “So we named it after him.”

Who’s the captain?

“There isn’t one,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

The sun shone brightly and the air was warm as the crew assembled Squirrel at the shore of the public-beach area of the lake. Barely visible about 2,000 feet across the water was Gary Ando’s dock, their destination.

Ando, manager of Ace Hardware in Freeland, helped the students with their materials, as did Island Recycling and Half Link Bicycle Shop in Bayview.

Squirrel was pushed out, the students piled on, and with a cheer and a lusty shout of “Sit down, Haley!” they were off, McConnaughey following in an aluminum rowboat with Jenni Wilson, one of the mothers, and a fish net to collect any plastic containers that might break free.

The crossing, more or less in a straight line and with only an occasional crew member overboard and back on, took about 45 minutes.

“A lot of non-paddlers out there,” observed a member of the welcoming committee.

“Looks like some refugees from a foreign country,” observed another.

“Have your passports ready,” shouted a third.

Paddles raised in salute, Squirrel glided up to Ando’s dock, and the crew boisterously abandoned ship.

Was it scary?

“Not really,” Eric Anderson said.

What was the best part?

“Jumping off,” he said.

“I was relieved to see it float,” Wilson said.

Squirrel is now in a barn in Langley, McConnaughey said, and the students still hope to figure out how to attach their bicycle parts for another voyage next summer.

All the students are home-schoolers who may take specific classes in the public schools through Whidbey Island Academy in Langley. McConnaughey said the class will continue through the year to study Archimedes, Newton and other paragons of physical science, then apply their theories by building Rube Goldberg contraptions demonstrating the laws of physics.

Any other projects on the horizon?

“Diet Coke and Mentos,” McConnaughey said. “That’ll be a blast.”

Roy Jacobson can be reached at 221-5300 or rjacobson@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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