Spalding University: Using Hydroplaning to Reach At-Risk Youth

Dr. H.A. Hasan, an Associate Professor at Spalding University, earned his Ph.D. in Special Education from the University of Washington in Seattle. Hasan's experience in the Seattle Public School District included self-contained programs designed for students in grades 4-12 who were classified as Seriously Behaviorally Disabled (SBD); then, he spent two years with the Hawaii Department of Education in a self-contained program for high school students categorized as Emotionally Disturbed.

Throughout his career, Hasan has worked extensively with troubled children and adolescents, including gang-involved students. The unique method he uses to reach this at-risk population is hydroplaning, where students build and then race their own boats.

No Flinch Teaching

One of Hasan’s earliest memories of his teaching was working with a two-year-old boy with Down Syndrome who was known to be a biter. Early into their encounters, the child bit down on Hasan’s wrist. He recalls thinking, “If I flinch, I’ll reinforce the behavior.” Refusing to show pain, Hasan simply “waited him out,” and the child eventually relented; the biting episode was never repeated. Hasan explains, “That began my career.” No matter the age of the students he worked with in any educational setting, he always had the same emotional goal to accompany his pedagogical objectives. “I wanted to be a father figure to them,” he explains, “and a role model.”

On July 4th 1986, Hasan was working/playing with his hydroplane crew, when his chief suggested that Hasan consider the potential for hydroplaning in classroom instruction. Instantly, Hasan saw the benefits of reaching students with math and science lessons that were all geared toward an interesting and exciting objective, particularly one with a competitive angle. He already knew he could engage students on a personal level through sports because he was coaching basketball after school, so he had a trusted role with students that moved beyond teacher-student and into a mentor-mentee relationship. When putting in the time and enthusiasm to ensure his students grew invested in night-league basketball, his focus was to “get them hooked,” so the ramifications of misconduct were clear and powerful. “If you gangbang, you can’t be on the team.”

When he moved to Hawaii to teach, he thought this setting and atmosphere might be something quite alien to what he was accustomed to, but as he was putting away his books in a portable trailer where he would soon be changing lives, gun shots interrupted his settling in. Someone had been killed in a drug deal right outside his new classroom. Realizing he would again be working with troubled kids-with students drawn to gang life out of desperation or not realizing their other options-he applied the same tools that worked before, and to great effect. Hasan learned quickly what held value among these students, and he asked a friend to procure a “genuine poi bowl” for him, when he was told these bowls held positions of great cultural significance in their families.

He loaded up the poi bowl with 100 marbles at the beginning of every week, and he would quietly remove a marble for any behavioral infraction from a class member. As long as they kept 75 marbles in the bowl, the class would get two hours off on Fridays for a luau, which quickly became a family affair with mothers and “aunties” cooking elaborate dishes over the week and warning their children that they had better not “mess up” and lose their party because they had been hard at work on the rewards. After only a short time proving what he could bring to these at-risk students in Hawaii, the principal had a moat dug in front of Hasan’s classroom so they could practice their racing. The positive pressure was coming from both peers and family, and the impact was unmistakable. He adds, “It spread from our classroom to the rest of the school and even their homes eventually.”

This work was about far more than just distracting them from poor choices with something fun or interesting though. Inspired by Bill Gates, Hasan wanted to ensure his students lacked for nothing in the areas of science, math, or engineering; he was determined to engage them in STEM. In terms of female students, who some educators assume are less likely to be drawn to STEM projects, Hasan adds that when younger men first get the tools and instructions, they often spend time and energy boasting about how sure they are to win. “The young women,” he continues, “just get to work.” Of the fifty names on the Regatta cup, only two are male.

The students care about their work, and Hasan serves as a trusted mentor, guide, and resource for these students to develop intellectual skills while also learning to believe in themselves. He remembers one student in particular, a “tough guy” by all accounts, who came to class one day looking miserable and exhausted. He admitted he had not slept the night before and that he was terribly afraid his boat test that day would be a failure. When Hasan reminded him that everyone was testing their boat for the first time, and it would be fine if the initial rollout was less than perfect, the student quietly shared, “I’ve never finished anything before.” Realizing the immense level of pressure this student was under, Hasan moved to a quiet part of his classroom and sent up a quick but fervent prayer that this child’s boat would perform. Not only did it function; it was the only boat that worked that day. It went on to win the Regatta later that year.

Working Past Classroom Inequalities

Much of Hasan’s research focuses on ways to reach culturally diverse students, along with students with special needs-or just students who learn in non-traditional ways, where their achievements aren’t necessarily best monitored with traditional assessment tools. He believes we can begin working past classroom inequalities, whether they are racial, cultural, socioeconomic, or learning- and behavior-based disorders. His goal is creating humane classrooms where students are empowered by project-based learning engagements, a mode of teaching that is appealing for students who are most engaged by the authenticity of hands-on learning. In this classroom, of course, the educator’s role is one of advisor, mentor, guide, coach, or facilitator.

The subject matter around the project is incredibly academically challenging-drawing on science, mathematics, critical thinking, collaborative work, and communicative abilities. The students not only engage in the hands-on activities while building their own vessels; they also ultimately compete against students from other schools in a regatta at the end of the semester, which helps students develop positive attitudes toward learning in general but also encourages them to engage in authentic, directed conversations with peers that are designed to facilitate successful collaborations. Perhaps most importantly, students learn to draw connections between their own lives and academic content, which is especially important for learners that face challenges in traditional academic settings.

Sharing Resources and Experiences

Hasan took a lifelong love of hydroplanes and created the revolutionary Project Hydroplane Racing Program (PHRP), which has changed the face of education for countless students- those he has worked with personally and those who benefited from his program under other teachers. Based on the constructivist theory of learning, his program offered a paradigm shift from how instruction has been historically delivered. In the PHRP, he explains, teachers share their power with students who are then better prepared to take more responsibility for their learning. You can learn more at his site

Hasan notes that teachers share with him that their students take an immediate sense of ownership and pride in their learning, once the PHRP is implemented in the classroom. Additionally, there are descriptions of behavioral improvements that are equally dramatic, with teachers reporting to Hasan that their students’ energy level, confidence, and self-efficacy all improve at a striking pace. Whether students are labeled as at-risk or they just are bored with traditional classroom dynamics, his program offers something exciting, different, and inspiring-a project that can excite the teachers and entice the kids into learning. Hasan concludes, “Our challenge in education today is to get our students in love with learning.”

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.