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Teaching Science Through the Art of Surfing and Skateboarding

May 20, 2021
In Florida, Toni and Uli Frallicciardi fuel their students' passion for academics and action sports

In skateboarding, the "Ollie" is one of the first tricks kids attempt when learning to ride. But how many also understand the physics behind the jump?

Toni and Uli Frallicciardi have made it their mission to make the science as fun as the sport.

In 2018, the South Florida couple founded Surf Skate Science, a homeschool co-op program in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that uses surfing and skateboarding to teach STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts, and math – to students from third to 10th grade.

The best part? The "classrooms" are at the beach and local skate parks.

“Our idea was to take something we love and to teach science through it,” says Toni.

Students Learn Science Through Skateboarding and Surfing
Toni and Uli Frallicciardi are cofounders of Surf Skate Science, a home school co-op program in south Florida that uses surfing and skateboarding to teach students science.

She and Uli make a perfect teaching tandem. Toni studied ocean engineering in college and leads the science labs. Uli, a longtime skateboard and surfing instructor, helps students put their newfound knowledge into practice at the park or in the water.

Surf Skate Science experienced a swell in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic as parents looked for creative ways to educate their kids in safe environments. The program also helped families rebuild a sense of community following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting three years ago.

We talked with Toni and Uli about their passion project and how they’re using it to make a difference for students in their community.

Surf, Skate, Science hero photo
Through Surf Skate Science, students learn the physics of skateboarding and tricks like the 'Ollie.'

How would you describe Surf Skate Science?

Toni: Surf Skate Science is a program that teaches science through action sports like surfing and skateboarding. We describe it as an action science class. Our goal is to get kids interested in science and technology careers, and to get them excited about learning. There’s a ton of science involved in skateboarding and surfing. We want kids to learn science with all their senses – to feel it, taste it, smell it and see it.

Where did you get the idea?

Toni: Uli and I have always been passionate about surfing and skateboarding. In 2018, we started a science class for our youngest son, who we were homeschooling at the time. We invited some of our friends from the homeschool community. The program grew out of a desire to combine hands-on learning with those sports we loved and give back.

Surf, Skate, Science. Toni teaching
Uli Frallicciardi prepares a Surf Skate Science student for a ride down a mini-ramp.

Why was that important in your community at the time?

Toni: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is 10 minutes from our house. After the shooting there in 2018, a lot of kids were isolated. A lot were being homeschooled for the first time. Families were just trying to navigate something new. We thought it was important they had some type of community and friendship. We saw how important it was to get the kids outside, learning, talking to each other and building relationships.

Surf, Skate, Science. Toni Fraccilliardo teaching
Toni Fralliciardi teaches students a lesson on ocean science, part of a diverse set of subjects that make up the Surf Skate Science curriculum.

Can you tell me more about what the kids are learning – and how you are teaching?

Toni: There are so many connections between science and surfing and skateboarding. If you didn't have physics, you couldn't do an ‘Ollie,’ which is the basis for all skateboarding. A skateboard is just a combination of simple machines. It’s really a lever. So, we’ll talk about levers and then show the kids how they can use the lever of a skateboard to do better tricks.

It’s the same with surfing. There are hydrodynamic forces and all kinds of things to learn about. We made a surfboard out of water bottles and the kids had a blast doing it. There’s also the science of everything underneath you. We teach about marine biology. We teach about the architecture, design and construction of skate parks. Kids are learning the science of concrete. They get to dive into things they wouldn't normally get to do in their school.

Surf, Skate, Science. Surfing High Five
Uli celebrates as a student begins a successful ride in the south Florida surf.

What does a typical class look like?

Toni: Our classes are 90 minutes. We spend 45 minutes doing labs and 45 minutes at the skate park or the beach. Kids take what they learn in the lab and go apply it. They are learning bigger lessons, too. In skateboarding, you fall a lot. That’s a lot like being a scientist. In science, you're going to fail, and you have to try again. Skateboarders have to do the same thing.

Uli calls Surf Skate Science his personal and professional passion. "Honestly, I get bummed out when I'm loading boards back to the shop."

How can you tell if students are making that connection between doing something they love and the science behind it?

Uli: The kids are just so engaged – in both the labs they do and then when they get on a skateboard and surfboard. When you’re setting a kid on a surfboard with a wave, you're seeing it all. You see the fear, the doubt, the confidence. You also see their understanding. They pick up on simple instructions and quickly figure out how things work.

Surf, Skate, Science, Studying students
Students spend 45 minutes in class working on labs, and 45 minutes putting their education to practice in the water or skate park.

Why do you think the program has become so popular, particularly during the pandemic?

Toni: The pandemic has underscored how important it is to get outside and make learning fun. Skateboarding and surfing are naturally socially distant sports. Kids naturally like to play and are naturally curious. They have great imaginations. They are creators and inventors. Skateboarding and surfing provide a perfect way to create, because they’re always trying new tricks. A lot of times when we put kids in four walls, we take away that imagination and ability to learn through playing.

44_2021_SURF (1).jpg
Surf Skate Science's popularity grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, as families sought creative ways to educate their kids and get them outdoors.

What do you love most about Surf Skate Science?

Uli: This is my passion. I love doing this every day. I love seeing how kids develop. We’re educating kids and having a positive influence. And it’s not just the kids. Mothers and fathers come to hang out at the beach and spend that hour and a half really just bonding, building community. Honestly, I get bummed out when I'm loading boards back to the shop. I want to go back and surf. I want to go hang out with the families.

Toni: We’ve learned that if you're passionate about something, you can do anything. Uli and I love the community that surfing and skateboarding brings together. I love the science. I get to take what I love to do and teach kids.

Surf Skate Science received a grant from the VELA Education Fund in coordination with 4.0. The Walton Family Foundation provided founding support to VELA.

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