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After the calculation of how much weight the handmade pontoon-style boat would bear, Oscar Meisse suggested installing a plank between the two rows of floatation barrels — because any seafaring vessel really ought to have a snack bar.

"To hold the chips and stuff," the Comstock Middle School seventh-grader said, measuring the width of the plank that he and his shipmates envision holding chips and drinks.

Meisse and three classmates are students in the school's new "make" class and lead players developing a boat for the upcoming "Trashtastic Boatacular" paddle competition at Nagasawa Community Park in Santa Rosa next month.

Designing, building and eventually paddling across a lake is the biggest project yet undertaken by the first-year class under the tutelage of teacher Dawn Thomas. In addition to overseeing Comstock's make elective, Thomas is crafting boats with her art students at Santa Rosa Middle School.

In the style of the far-ranging curriculum of the make class, Thomas ushered her students outside and pointed to piles of potential boat-making materials: barrels, 2x4s, plywood sheets and cardboard boxes.

"We showed them everything: This is what you can build with," she said. "What can you make?"

That non-traditional way to address more traditional lessons in science, math and engineering is what excites some educators about the idea of giving students a problem along with multiple modes and tools to attack it.

Building a good looking boat is one thing, but building a boat that four seventh-graders can successfully paddle across a body of water is sure to promote critical thinking, Thomas said.

"I make it their problem," Comstock's make class volunteer Bob van de Walle said. "Then I make sure they have different ways of making estimates or doing the math."

Meisse and teammate Mario Vazquez computed the total weight of their team then calculated how much weight could be supported by two plastic, 55-gallon olive barrels, sawed in half.

"Mario and his team came up with a concept right off the bat," van de Walle said.

"This boat is going to be slow and stable," he said. "For some reason, with this group, stable was super important. They didn't want it to be fast, they wanted to make sure it wasn't going to tip over."

This new take on science could fit well with the anticipated overhaul of California's science standards, said Mike Roa, science consultant for the Sonoma County Office of Education.

"The next generation science standards are an attempt to have a definite link between all the stem — science, technology, engineering and math — standards," he said. "Something like a make class or maker fair, if done well, would definitely help with that linkage."

The new look at science standards under the anticipated national common core curriculum adoption comes at a time when U.S. students continue to lag their peers across the globe in math and science.

The average scores among students in the U.S. are not significantly lower than the students from top scoring nations, but many nations far outpaced the U.S. in the proportion of students who scored at the highest levels on math and science tests, according to Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

Seven percent of U.S. students scored advanced in eighth-grade math, while 48 percent of top-scoring Singapore eighth-graders reached that mark and 47 percent of South Korean students hit the same target.

The United States ranked 11th in fourth-grade math, ninth in eighth-grade math, seventh in fourth-grade science and tenth in eighth-grade science, according to results released in December.

But for seventh-grader Vazquez, more pressing than the nation's prospects for answering President Barack Obama's call for colleges to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers who majored in STEM fields, was how to seat his teammates according to their weight and to maximize stability on race day.

But just in case, Vazquez noted that he's a good swimmer.

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)