Design Challenge: Making a Boat

What You Need:

  • A variety of materials that float (e.g., plastic straws, corks, pencils, ping pong balls)
  • A variety of materials that sink (e.g., metal spoons, erasers, dry pasta, pipe cleaners)
  • A large plastic, reusable container (large enough to submerge the materials listed above)
  • Duct tape
  • Plastic wrap
  • Mini paper cup
  • 25 pennies set aside
  • Pencil and paper for taking notes

What You Do:

  1. Before your child gets to work, make sure that they fully understand the challenge. Explain to them that they should use the provided materials to create a boat that will hold 25 pennies and stay afloat.
  2. Ask your child the following questions:
    1. Besides a boat, what are some things you know that float in water?
    2. What are some things that sink in water?
  3. Fill a plastic container with water. Give your child all the materials they have to choose from to make their boat. Have them test each material by placing it in the water. Have them record their observations on a sheet of paper, or write down their observations for them.
  4. After your child fully understands the prompt of this challenge and has tested the materials, they can begin brainstorming different ways to build a boat of their own.
    • Don't let your child start building just yet. Instead, have them draw or write down their ideas on a piece of paper so that they can refer back to them later. You can also write them down for them if you'd like.
  5. Once your child is done brainstorming, ask them to choose the idea they think will work best. Be sure to ask them why they are choosing this design, emphasizing the purpose of the boat (to float 25 pennies).
    • This is an important step of the design thinking process because it teaches your child to prioritize the functionality of their design over personal preferences. This also prevents your child from getting emotionally attached to one design.
  6. Next, allow your child to begin building. Be sure to supervise for safety purposes, but allow them to work independently through challenges as much as possible.
  7. After your child is done building, it's time to test the design. Have your child place their boat in the container of water and observe whether it successfully floats. Next, have your child place the 25 pennies on their boat, counting them aloud one by one.
    1. If your child's boat successfully floats with 25 pennies in it, congratulate them for their success!
    2. If your child's boat sinks, make sure they aren't discouraged. Ask your child what they think went wrong and why. Then, encourage them to go back and repeat this process in order to make a boat that works next time.

Below, we have written instructions for building a boat in case your child is struggling to come up with ideas. Feel free to have your child build something entirely on their own, or use the procedure below:

  1. First, take a piece of duct tape and stick some plastic straws to the adhesive side of the tape.
  2. Next, wrap your straws and duct tape in plastic wrap.
    • Ask your child why they think using plastic wrap is useful. (Answer: plastic wrap makes the boat "waterproof.")
  3. Tape down the plastic wrap using duct tape to secure it in place.
    • At this point, you have finished building the boat's structure.
  4. After your child has finished building their boat, have them tape down a small paper cup in the middle to serve as a weight holder for their pennies.
    • Ask your child why they think it's important to have a weight holder. (Answer: a weight holder balances out the weight of the boat, so it won't tip over when you place the pennies on top.)
  5. Next, have your child place the boat in the container of water. .
  6. Finally, test out your child's boat! Add the 25 pennies inside the cup one at a time, counting them aloud as you go.

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