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Miniature boat built by Central Falls students washes up on coast of England

URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography helped students at Raíces Dual Language Academy and Veterans Memorial Elementary create the 5-foot-long craft, which traveled 9,300 miles over eight months

Third-graders at the Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Central Falls painted the miniature boat Inspiration along with University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography student graduate student Sarah Nickford.Handout

PROVIDENCE — A tiny boat built by third-graders in the smallest city in the smallest state made it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, completing an eight-month, 9,300-mile journey while living up to its name: Inspiration.

BBC News reported that the 5-foot-long boat turned up near Christchurch, on the south coast of England, and was taken to Tiptoe Primary School, where children were “thrilled” to see it.

This was no mere message in a bottle. The University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography teamed up with the Central Falls School District, equipping the pint-sized vessel with a battery charged by two small solar panels, plus sensors and GPS units to track the boat and share its data.

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Students at two Central Falls elementary schools assembled the boat using a kit from Educational Passages. Middle and high school students in an after-school program installed a package of sensors to measure air and water temperature. And along the way, URI students and staff offered a variety of ocean science lessons.

The boat was christened Inspiration after the new Central Falls slogan: “Diversity That Inspires.

On March 26, a research vessel launched Inspiration about 100 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. It followed a zigzag course over 245 days. And on Nov. 26, it was spotted by people walking along Avon Beach, near Christchurch, England.

The mini-boat Inspiration after it was launched 100 miles off the coast of Rhode Island.Handout

The Central Falls students who helped assemble the craft were excited to learn it had traveled so far, Veterans Memorial Elementary School teacher Kim Alix said Friday. “Oh my goodness, one of the little boys started jumping up and down he was so excited,” she said.

Mason Gutierrez, a Raíces Dual Language Academy student who helped assemble the miniboat, said he was surprised the craft had made it across the ocean. He said he thought it might fall apart or get snagged on seaweed.

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Amy Carney, a teacher at Raíces, said the project taught students a lot about the ocean — about currents and ocean animals, about how warm water rises and cold water sinks.

The students were able track the boat through GPS, and that taught them about other parts of the world, Carney said. “They learned that there is more to the world than Central Falls,” she said.

Also, Carney said the URI graduate students, all female, provided role models of women in science.

Alix said she contacted URI in August 2021 because a reading module had to do with marine life, and she knew URI has a premiere oceanography school. “They got back to me right away and asked if my children were interested in helping to build miniboats,” she said. “I said: Yes, absolutely.”

During a summer program, Central Falls students helped to assemble another miniboat (named Square Mile after the approximate size of the tiny city), and that boat ended up in the Azores, Alix said.

In working on Inspiration, the students not only helped to paint and varnish the boat, they also created postcards and filled out “crew slips” providing information about themselves to whoever found the craft. Those items were placed inside the boat, along with shirts from Central Falls and URI, she said.

Alix said the project provided students with a mix of lessons in science, reading, and geography. And the experience will culminate with a cultural exchange: Plans call for Central Falls students to join a Zoom call with the students at Tiptoe Primary School in England next week, she said.

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“I think they have started to realize it’s a big world out there,” Alix said.

The BBC reported that a man named Peter Waine spotted the miniboat on Avon Beach while walking his dog. He found a letter inside asking whoever found it to take it to a school, so he brought it home to his wife Carly, a teacher at Tiptoe Primary School near Lymington.

“I brought it to school to talk to the children about it — they were so excited,” Carly Waine told the BBC. “It’s been wonderful. We are thrilled.”

Peter Hanlon, director of public engagement at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, said the project gave graduate students a chance to take what they’re learning in their research to a wider audience.

“Students want to do more of this public engagement work — not just sharing the information but hearing back from the students and the public about what do they want to know about the ocean and their vision of where we are heading in ocean health,” he said. “It’s inspiring.”

Now, Hanlon said, URI and Educational Passages will work with the people who found the miniboats in England and the Azores to relaunch them so they go on more journeys.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.