When Engineers Go Sailing

When Engineers Go Sailing

Course: CEE 14SC: When Engineers Go Sailing: the Science and Technology of America's Cup Yachts and Matches
Instructors: Bob Tatum, George Springer, Margot Gerritsen, Lindley Smith
Department/School: Stanford Introductory Studies program Sophomore College, in which rising sophomores attend an intensive three-week residential program before autumn classes begin
Course Description: Seminar with field work
Audience: Sophomore College students
Schedule: Monday - Friday, 10:00am-3:00pm

Teaching & Learning Strategies:

Two Stanford undergrads gazing over the Bay, Golden Gate Bridge in background. Photo by Liam Kinney.The class was split among traditional lectures, demonstrations, and the sailing portion outside the classroom. The co-instructors focused on using class time efficiently given both the sailing component and the limited time span of Sophomore College, which lasts only three weeks. Sophomore College  employed two Sophomore College Assistants (SCA’s) who lived with the students and aided professors and students alike for the duration of the program. "They were busy days, they were long days with lots of activities, and it’s a really great thing to be able to work with a group of students who can focus on one thing," said Bob Tatum, co-instructor.

Out-of-Class Activities:  

Students visited a lab on campus to use electron microscopes to analyze boat materials, and worked with an actual material process for carbon-fiber. These activities helped the students understand the makeup of the yachts they were studying in and outside of class.

After the normal morning sessions centered in the classroom, the students went on to the latter part of the day, called “Afternoon Academic Activities.” According to Tatum, these were crucial elements to the course, “even though they weren’t formal classroom settings.” These Academic Activities involved the Stanford Sailing Center and the Oracle Team USA headquarters. Because the class visited the Oracle headquarters on a non-race day, the students were able to get an up-close look at the sailing yachts.

In-Class Activities:

Female Stanford undergrads visit America's Cup racing yachts on the SF Bay. Photo by Liam Kinney.A main resource for the class was its location, the Peter Wallenberg Learning Theater, which has a variety of technological features such as screens for numerous types of displays.  The first in-class group activity relied heavily on the screens, as pairs of students analyzed an individual race in detail. "The technology in this room really was a major asset for the course," said Tatum.

At the end of the course, the students formed groups of four which, as Tatum explains, allowed them to interact with the others in the course, especially students with different backgrounds. “We put those together, tried to emphasize the diversity and I think they learned tremendously from each other, no doubt about it,” he says.

In addition to group projects, Tatum and his co-teachers also videotaped a series of interviews with Oracle Team USA members, ranging from the design department, general management, corporate functions like public relations and sponsor relations, to the crew themselves, for students to watch in the Learning Theater.


Tatum focused on giving the students a sound foundational knowledge of engineering by focusing on materials, basic structural engineering for the boats, fluid mechanics, and fluid modeling for the wind,  the sails, and the hulls in the water. Tatum also gave students freedom to use their varying skill sets, interests, and backgrounds to get the most out of the class. For the final group project, for example, students were asked to work in teams, but the topic they chose was completely up to them.

“Turns out that they picked components of the sailing yachts,” Tatum says. “We hadn’t anticipated that, we’d just provided a fairly flexible assignment that they could pick topics that applied what they learned and help them further extend that learning, and integrate it.”

Video by Robert Emery Smith