Float-a-Boat: Introduction to Scientific Inquiry and Design (Part 1/2)

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SWBAT plan and carry out an investigation using science and engineering practices.

Big Idea

Welcome to the water park! In this lesson, we begin our Float-a-Boat journey as students create a “lazy river” boat design that will hold the most passengers.


Who doesn't love a water park? Other than the hydrophobes in our midst, middle school students are enthusiastic about roller coasters, water slides and giant water toilet bowls. The Float-a-Boat series of lessons is designed as a pre-assessment and introduction to planning and carrying out scientific investigations and engineering design processes (SP3: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations). From beginning to end, students are engaged in investigation and design process to ask questions and define problems (SP1) about "lazy river boats" at the water park; analyze and interpret data (SP4); use mathematics and computational thinking (SP5); construct explanations and design solutions (SP6); and engage in argument from evidence (SP7).

Additional connections to Common Core Mathematical Standards in Measurement and Data occur when students use measurement of mass to collect data and then analyze their data during Part 3 and Part 4 of the lesson. Students also access Common Core Language Arts Standards when writing arguments from evidence in Part 4 of the lesson.

While I use this series of lessons as an introduction and pre-assessment, the lessons can also be used or re-used to explore many different concepts including: mass, weight, displacement, forces and Newton's Laws of Motion (PS2.A: Forces and Motion). Rather than trying to teach all of these concepts at one time, I choose to concentrate on scientific practice learning objectives and tailor the activities, discussions and assessment to match the objectives.

This series of lessons also provides opportunities to make connections to several cross cutting concepts. The Float-a-Boat Investigation represents a system model in which students define the system and test ideas about the system (CCC4). Additionally, students test the stability of the system when changes are made (CCC7) by looking at cause and effect (CCC2) and structure and function (CCC6) of their boats.

The Float-a-Boat series of lessons is a scientific inquiry and engineering design investigation that including lessons taught over the span of 1 - 2 weeks. To help manage the magnitude of this activity, you will find the project split into 4 parts.

  • Part 1 includes the ENGAGE and EXPLORE components of the lesson; Time: 2-3 50-minute lessons or equivalent block periods. 
  • Part 2 includes the EXPLAIN and EXTEND components of the lesson; Time: 2-3 50-minute lessons or equivalent block periods.
  • Part 3 includes a follow up data analysis activity called "Float-a-Boat: Student Rubric Creation and Authentic Data Analysis"; Time: 1 50-minute lesson.
  • Part 4 includes the EVALUATE component of the lesson called: "Float-a-Boat: Student Choice Assessments and Cooperative Grading": Time: 1 - 2 50-minute lessons or equivalent block period.


20 minutes

In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, students generate a list of their three favorite types of rides at a water park (or amusement park). If students have not been to a water or amusement park, they pair up with someone who has. After students generated their lists, they engage in a "think-pair-share" activity in which they share their ideas and generate a response to this prompt:

What makes a water park ride fun?

Students share their ideas and I have a student keep a list of characteristics and types of rides that are shared. After hearing an idea from each group, I introduce them to a problem that occurred in a water park over the summer of 2014. To do this, we read one of these articles together and watch the videos. To access additional Common Core English Language Arts Standards for Science and Technical Subjects, this engagement activity could be modified to include an individual or guided reading lesson using non-fiction text. While we access the texts, students are encouraged to think about our year-long essential question:

Does “science” help or hurt our chances of survival on Earth?

USA Today Tallest Water Slide

Kansas City Star Schlitterbahn Verruckt Rumors

KCTV5 Worlds of Fun Ride Won't Open on Saturday

The articles and videos describe a new water slide at Kansas City's Schlitterbahn Water Park called "Verruckt" (insane in German), which is now the world's tallest water slide. This water slide underwent extensive testing over the summer using sandbags in the four-person rafts that will eventually hold people. News media reported that sandbags were being thrown from the slide as the raft progressed. The idea that an amusement ride like this one could be deadly if we don't understand the physics is highly engaging for middle school students. Students have no trouble generating and sharing a few ideas about how the articles are related to our essential question.


80 minutes

The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. To help students explore the scientific inquiry and engineering design process, use the Float a Boat Design Plan to introduce the design challenge:

Create a “lazy river” boat from aluminum foil that will hold the most passengers.

If students don't know what a lazy river ride at a water park is, show them a video such as this one:


For a kinesthetic connection, have students lazily walk around the class and through the halls for 30 seconds at their slowest pace, so they can feel the relaxation. Remind students of the previous discussion of what makes a water park ride fun. Students generate ideas like "exciting" and "fast", but the relaxation of a lazy river usually surfaces too. Additionally, this is an excellent part of the lesson in which to inject a little fun competition. The competition rules are:

1) Make an aluminum foil boat from a single sheet of foil measuring 18" x 18".

2) No other materials may be used to make the boat.

3) The boat passengers (rubber stoppers or some other item) will be measured by measuring the total mass of the passengers.

4) The winning boat receives a prize. "Winning" or "losing" does not affect your grade. Your grade will be based on what you learn.

Students are directed to:

Use what you know about experimental design and solving engineering problems to complete the following activities.

Since this activity is an introduction to student led inquiry, it is important to consider how students will grapple with complexity and how to structure the gradual release of control when working together. One way to aide this process is to have students generate a contract for group work prior to starting. Students may have a wealth of prior knowledge to draw upon or very little. To support students who have little prior knowledge about experimental design and solving engineering problems, provide a few resources such as Scientific Inquiry Glossary, Science Buddies Engineering Design ProcessScience Buddies Steps of the Scientific Method or Science Buddies Comparison Chart to help scaffold the process.

Review the Let it Go Video and the reflection: Let it Go - Releasing and Regaining Control in this section for more thoughts on this topic.

Despite cries of protest about planning first, students work in groups to:

Use your Scientific Inquiry Glossary to plan your investigation. These words will help cue you to some of the steps or parts of an experiment you may want to include. Add to the organizer at the end of this resource to help you understand the steps your group will want to follow.

Allow students enough time to research, discuss, draw and write their ideas without intervention. The graphic organizer is purposefully blank to assess what students can generate prior to additional instruction. If groups of students get stuck, provide additional resources as listed above or allow them to send an emissary to conference with another group. As is evident in the Float-a-Boat Design Plan Student Work, there are limits to students' knowledge and the organization of that knowledge. A strategy to manage this student need will be discussed in the EXPLAIN part of the lesson in Part 2.

As groups start to finish, move into Part 2, which includes the EXPLAIN and EXTEND components of the lesson.