Float-a-Boat: Student Rubric Creation and Authentic Data Analysis

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SWBAT analyze a collective data set using a student-generated rubric.

Big Idea

Authentic data analysis takes on a new spin when it determines the winner of a student engineering design challenge.


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 waterpark; analyze and interpret data (SP4); use mathematics and computational thinking (SP5); construct explanations and design solutions (SEP6); 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.


5 minutes

In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, the only strategy necessary is to let students know:

Today, we are going to decide who wins the "Float-a-Boat" Design Challenge.

At this point in the lesson, students have been asking for over a week about who will win the challenge. In order to encourage the anticipation, I remind them there will be prizes when we decide the winner and let students sit with the question for awhile.

By the time the announcement that "today is the day" is made, students are so excited that they don't even realize that I have hidden the wolf of "data analysis" (SP4: Analyzing and Interpreting Data) in the sheep's clothes of competition.


35 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, students analyze a data set representing the results of the Float-a-Boat Design Challenge using the Float-a-Boat Rubric.  This rubric is created indirectly by students as they generate ideas during this lesson: Scientists of the Round Table.

The question up for discussion during the Scientists of the Round Table Discussion was:

What are the most important factors to consider when designing a water slide?

At the time, students did not know that the responses generated during the discussion would be used to create a rubric. I used notes taken by students during the discussion to decipher the top five factors that they considered most important. From these notes, I created the simple data table/rubric found on the Float-a-Boat Rubric. Students are excited when they realize that the data table/rubric they are using represents their thoughts. This is an excellent way to inject authenticity into the data analysis process.

Teacher Note: This rubric could just as easily be created directly by students using a class brainstorm and ranking system. 

Prior to this lesson, students need to submit the results of their Float-a-Boat testing. In order to collect this data, student groups submit the data via a Google Form: Float-a-Boat Data Submission Form. An example of the data set can be seen here: Float-a-Boat Data Submission Form Student Example. Review of the form prior to the lesson can help ensure the data makes sense; provide copies of the data set and a copy of the Float-a-Boat Rubric for each group.

To start, read the instructions together and help students arrange the groups as described in the instructions.

During the data analysis negotiation, working the room is important for the following reasons:

1) Students need clarification on the ranking system. In some cases, they tried to grade the boats rather than rank.

2) Students need help making sense of the complicated data set.

3) Students need help maintaining discussion norms as established in Scientists of the Round Table.

4) Students need prompts to provide rigor during the discussion. Rigor can be added by asking students questions about crosscutting concepts such as Cause and Effect (CCC2), Structure and Function (CCC6) and pressed to provide evidence for their arguments (SP7). Additional discussion of this topic can be found here: Injecting Rigor Through Discussion of Crosscutting Concepts.

Teacher Note: An intervention for student groups who are challenged by completing the entire data table/rubric is to reduce the number of factors to consider. Also, if a group is missing a representative from one of the original design teams, I allowed an "emissary" to go to another group to ask for information.


10 minutes

The EXPLAIN stage provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means. To explain, student groups write a 140 character Twitter-style tweet to announce their winning boat with evidence/reasoning as to why the boat they chose won. This format is fun, authentic and challenges students to summarize their results concisely. For an example tweet: Float-a-Boat Rubric Student Example.

To close the lesson, groups share their tweets and the class crowns a winning boat!


The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. Evaluation of learning for this project takes place in Part 4: "Float-a-Boat: Student Choice Assessments and Cooperative Grading".