By MEG WATERS     7/13/2023

Sink or swim was the challenge in the final physics exam for 49 juniors and seniors in Helen Wagner’s Santa Margarita Catholic High School physics class. The exam was a team effort to build cardboard boats and get them in one piece across the school swimming pool.

Eleven cardboard boats, designed and built by student teams, were launched in the final week of school by two-person crews who paddled (or not) across the water.

Newton’s laws of motion and gravity were on display in real time.

According to Wagner, the admiral of this pasteboard fleet, “Six of the 11 boats made it across the pool, so we had a 55% success rate!”

No one was harmed except the five boats that succumbed to gravity and water. Lesson learned.

Luckily, student grades depended on more than the seaworthiness of their vessels. The four student teams earned points based on participation, including boat design blueprints (with measurements) and construction worth 20 points. The remaining 10 points covered the design quality of the construction and an appropriate theme. Extra credit (one point) went to the fastest boat and theme participation. Three-point penalties resulted if a boat didn’t cross the pool and four points if the boat wasn’t ready in time.

The cardboard boat regatta took place over two days during the last week of classes. On day one, the winning boat was the pirate-themed “The Cod Father.” The team that designed and built it included senior Luke Spindler, headed for CSUF and senior Jack Armstrong, who will set sail for UCSD in the fall. Cole Peterson, who also came up with the “The Cod Father” name, will be heading east to the University of Georgia and Cannon Thiessen to the University of Indiana. Spindler and Armstrong paddled the boat across the pool in 63 seconds.

On day two, three of the five boats made it across the pool – all in less than 60 seconds. The winning boat was “The Cruiser,” designed and built by seniors Luke Lavin, Jack Svinth, Camiren Varela and junior Tyler Lang. The entry featured a laid-back Hawaiian Island cruise motif. Varela and Lang rowed the boat, which ultimately came in first over the two-day competition

Wagner, who teaches physics and chemistry, is retiring after the Class of 2023 tosses their mortarboards. She has spent 19 years teaching in Orange County Catholic high schools, including Cornelia Connelly in Anaheim.

Newton’s first law states that every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force. The students who participated in the cardboard boat race may go on to careers in science, law, medicine, technology or something not yet on the books. But it’s pretty safe to bet that none of them will ever forget their high school physics final…proving once again that the external force of a good teacher can be a lifelong propellent.