Cardboard boats set sail in Behrend pool

Two people paddle a cardboard boat in Penn State Behrend's pool.

The second-annual cardboard boat race at Penn State Behrend challenged students to create — and stay dry inside — a boat built from old boxes.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — They say duct tape can fix anything. Maarten Van Hees, a lecturer in physics at Penn State Behrend, challenged would-be sailors to prove it at the college’s second-annual Cardboard Boat Race.

Van Hees tasked teams with building a floating vessel out of nothing but cardboard and duct tape. Each team then had to paddle 25 yards across the pool in Behrend’s Junker Center.

“The event is meant to show the fun side of physics,” Van Hees said. “We are experimenting with buoyancy.”

While cardboard floats, it falls apart when it gets wet. Duct tape can be used to make the material sturdy and reliable enough to survive a race across the pool.

But the boats needed to do more than make it across the water — they needed to carry competitors, too. When they built the boat, teams had to account for the added mass of the crew who will paddle it.

“They have to figure out how high to make the walls and how big to make the base,” Van Hees said. “Do you build a really big boat and sacrifice speed, or do you build a smaller, shallower boat that can move faster but is more likely to get wet and sink?”

That’s where the fun begins.

“All the teams prioritize different things,” Van Hees said. “And then, when the races start, everyone has a blast seeing how each team designed its boat, what worked well and what did not.”

This year’s races involved teams from Behrend and from Erie County middle- and high-schools. The event included a design competition and a trophy for the team whose boat floated the longest without taking on water.

Each of the teams left the event with a sense of accomplishment, Van Hees said.

“That is truly my goal: to inspire students to find joy in places they normally wouldn’t think to look for it, like physics,” he said.


Heather Cass

Publications and design coordinator

Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

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