SOURCE Lesson Plans Detail

Designing Functional Boat Models

Topic Engineering Design, Buoyancy, Material Economics
Program Learning Exchange Program
Developed by Hoang Nguyen
Developer Type Undergraduate students

Overview / Purpose / Essential Questions

Middle school students are introduced to fundamental ideas of engineering design by modeling and constructing a boat. Not only do they learn about the engineering discipline, they also learn why boats are able to float and what engineers must consider when designing a large scale project. Some essential questions include:

  • What properties should we consider for a boat to float?
  • What makes one boat float better than another?
  • How can we minimize material costs while optimizing functionality?
  • What are the steps to engineering design?

Performance / Lesson Objective(s)

  • Students will gain a fundamental grasp of Archimedes buoyancy.
  • Students will learn about the limitations that are inherent in the engineering discipline, including material availability, time constraints, and costs.
  • Students will develop notions of structural stability and consider how one design is "better than another."

Lesson Materials

  • Dry erase board and markers
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Aluminum foil
  • Saran wrap
  • Tape
  • Hot glue gun
  • Super glue
  • Geometry cubes

Lesson Motivation

This lesson plan is motivated by the initiative to instill scientific ideas of engineering into middle school students. We aim to provide a foundation for students so that when they enroll in higher level math and science courses, they are intimidated, after having a basis for scientific problem solving. By combining designing with hands on building, students gain confidence and individuality in their own styles of problem solving.

Lesson Activities

  1. Learning about Archimedes buoyancy, simplified appropriately.
  2. Exploring different designs independently and individually rationalizing why one design is stronger than others.
  3. Individually designing boat models with dry erase boards.
  4. Making boat models by hand.
  5. Testing the finished products.
  6. Reflect on the results.


  1. "Lecture" to students the importance of a low mass to volume ratio in the functionality of a boat.
  2. Have students draw sketches of their design on a dry erase board.
  3. Have students explain to the teachers the reasoning behind their design. If their designs appropriately invoke the lecture, grant permission to advance to the next construction phase.
  4. Set up construction phase for students, and have them start building their boats. Give them a fixed amount of materials they are allowed to use (e.g maximum of 30 Popsicle sticks). 
  5. Take pictures of each students' boat for reflection later.
  6. Set up trial phase for students, including a filled bucket of water.
  7. Take models, one by one, and place them into the bucket.
  8. Record observations.
  9. Incrementally insert cubes onto the boats.
  10. Record observations
  11. Record the maximum of geometry cubes each boat was able to sustain before sinking.
  12. Go over with students the best design, reinforcing the lecture's information.

Wrap up / Conclusion

By combining the three phases: designing, building, and testing we were able to provide students with a project that teaches principles of buoyancy and reinforcing them with their own built projects. It suffices to say that each student learned the same concepts while designing unique, individual projects.

Follow up

Students had a lot of fun completing this project, and it could definitely be repeated again in the future. Some modifications to how this lesson plan could be change is instead of having students being lectured to by the teacher(s), they could conduct independent research. This would allow them to further their independent working habits.

Supporting Web Information

Alignment Info

Audience(s) Middle school students
STEM Area(s) Engineering
Physical Sciences (RI GSE) PS1.5-6.1a
Students demonstrate an understanding of characteristic properties of matter by … comparing the masses of objects of equal volume made of different substances.
Physical Sciences (RI GSE) PS1.5-6.2a
Students demonstrate an understanding of characteristic properties of matter by … recognizing that different substances have properties, which allow them to be identified regardless of the size of the sample.
Physical Sciences (RI GSE) PS1.5-6.3a
Students demonstrate an understanding of conservation of matter by … explaining that regardless of how parts of an object are arranged, the mass of the whole is always the same as the sum of the masses of its parts.
Physical Sciences (RI GSE) PS1.7-8.1a
Students demonstrate an understanding of characteristic properties of matter by … measuring mass and volume of both regular and irregular objects and using those values as well as the relationship D=m/v to calculate density.
Activity Type(s) Hands-on
Grade Level(s) 6
Version 1
Created 01/21/2015 01:08 PM
Updated 12/20/2018 11:39 AM