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West Valley City Journal

Neil Armstrong Academy students send Lego minifigure across the Great Salt Lake

Jun 06, 2024 10:34AM ● By Zachary Smith

Neil Armstrong Academy Principal John Paul Sorensen and his “hearty crew” preparing the vessel for takeoff. (Zachary Smith/City Journals)

Neil Armstrong Academy is an elementary school that is known for its focus on STEM education and its unique, hands-on approach to learning. As a school, they are nothing if not ambitious. Four years ago, Armstrong launched a Lego minifigure 12,000 feet into the air, on the edge of space. For the past several years, they have been sending another Lego minifigure around the world and tracking its movement between various countries and continents, hoping to have it returned back to the school where it started. This year, the school is demonstrating the engineering process by setting sail with Captain Armstrong on the Great Salt Lake. 

The Captain Armstrong project is the second part of an ongoing series of STEM projects involving the use of alternative energy sources in travel. Preceding it was the Little Iolani project, in which students designed small boats powered exclusively by alternative sustainable energy to travel through a 50-foot trough of water on the school grounds. 

In September 2023, the entire school began collaborating on the design of a small, solar powered, self-steering boat that would be able to sail a Lego minifigure, named Captain Armstrong, across the Great Salt Lake. Each grade level was assigned a different role to fulfill in the project, from designing the boat to programming its movement. The plan was for the boat to travel 22 miles, beginning at Willard Bay and ending at The Great Saltair. 

The brainchild behind the project is Neil Armstrong Principal John Paul Sorensen, a man with a passion for inspiring children to think like engineers. “In schools, we teach kids things,” Sorensen said. “How to read, how to write….I’m of the opinion that it’s not only important that kids remember what we teach them, but also the process of learning.” 

“It was really fun, even though there were a few problems,” said Elias Vave, a fifth-grader who was in Sorensen’s “hearty crew” of student volunteers and assisted in the engineering process. Among these problems, he mentioned, were the weight added by the solar panels, the thrusters overheating, and the vessel needing to be waterproofed. The crew found ways to overcome these setbacks in an attempt to make the best version of Captain Armstrong’s vessel—dubbed the “SS Smalls,” a reference to the film “The Sandlot”—that they possibly could. 

On May 11 at 9:21 a.m., Sorensen and the hearty crew officially launched SS Smalls from the Antelope Island marina. The event was live streamed so that students and parents could watch from home, and the official Neil Armstrong Academy website hosted 24/7 tracking throughout the duration of the voyage. 

Unfortunately, the boat’s thrusters failed due to battery complications, and it was unable to cross the lake. Sorensen was luckily able to retrieve SS Smalls before any major damage occurred. In a video posted to Neil Armstrong Academy’s Facebook account, Sorensen assured that the school would once again collaborate to revise and improve the vessel before returning to the Great Salt Lake at a later date. 

“That’s what we do at Neil Armstrong Academy,” Sorensen said. “We try, we fail, we try again.” Although Captain Armstrong did not succeed during this year’s voyage, Neil Armstrong Academy remains undeterred and ready to continue the project until the treasure at the end of the lake is claimed. λ