A visitor eagerly retrieves her plankton model, so she can try again.

A visitor eagerly retrieves her plankton model, so she can try again.

Science, engineering, and history all came together at China Camp during the annual Heritage Day celebration at the end of August. Heritage Day is a celebration of the cultural history of China Camp, complete with lion dancers, sailing trips onboard the Grace Quan, and a birthday party for Frank Quan. Each year the San Francisco Bay NERR and Wildcare bring a little science and nature to the event by setting up interactive exhibits. This year, the NERR hosted an activity called “Build-a-Drifter” to stretch the visitors’ design and engineering skills, while they learned about plankton and oysters.

The idea of Build-a-Drifter is simple: create a model that is neutrally buoyant so it floats within the water column rather than sinking quickly to the bottom or floating on the surface. After building a model from clay, toothpicks, etc., the visitor carefully lowers it into a tank of water. If the model floats or sinks (which it always does the first time), the visitor takes out the model and redesigns it. It takes many, many iterations to build a model that is neutrally buoyant. The kids were up for the challenge! Several stayed at the table for an hour, testing and re-testing their designs. Even a few parents caught the science bug, and quietly started building and testing their own designs alongside their children.

The activity was such a success that we are setting it up again at Rush Ranch as part of the first “Science Discovery Lab” during the Get the Rush festivities on October 17th from 10am to 1pm.


A successful model – just the right combination of rocks, water, and air sealed inside a plastic container.

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