Engineering Challenge - Watercraft

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SWBAT design a watercraft applying the engineering design process, identifying the constraints and criteria for success.

Big Idea

Engineering is not a one and done activity. Students are challenged to apply the engineering design process as they continue to work toward success.

The Need for the Lesson

There is a growing need for engineers in our ever changing world. NGSS engineering standards for middle school provide a framework for developing student understanding of the engineering design process. 

The persistence needed for problem solving is a struggle for many students who want to know the correct, step-by-step instructions for creating and testing the watercraft. Engineering activities are about challenging students to work through the engineering design process until they are successful.

Investigation Preparation & Summary

15 minutes

Investigation Summary and Standards

Students are be challenged to create a watercraft that can successfully float 25-30 pennies in a paper cup. A list of materials is included in the resources.

Below I describe how this lesson meets the standards:

MS-ETS1.1 Students begin the engineering design process with the identification of the problem, in this case the need for a watercraft that will float with pennies as cargo. The constraints for students are the materials supplied and the criteria for success is the watercraft's ability to float with as many pennies as possible.

MS-ETS1.2 Students will design solutions and collaboration among group members. Students will sketch design possibilities meeting the constraints and determine the best design in their group for the first prototype.

MS-ETS1.3 Students will evaluate their prototype against the criteria for success then look at other design options to see if the watercraft can be improved to meet or exceed the criteria for success.

MS-ETS1.4 Remind students that the engineering design process is iterative. Engineering projects are not a one and done solution. The prototype watercraft will be tested and evaluated for success.

The Challenge

This is the first engineering project for students so I share with students the story of Apollo 13. The Apollo 13 mission was to take two astronauts to the moon. As the spacecraft was heading towards the moon, an oxygen tank exploded crippling the ship that the astronauts depended on to sustain life. One of the most significant challenges was the lack of filtered air. The crew was breathing in unhealthy amounts of carbon dioxide. They needed a filter to clean the air so they could safely return to Earth. The criteria for success was obvious, they needed a filter immediately. The constraints were also obvious. This mission was before the International Space Station and the Space Shuttles so there was no possible way to get supplies to the ship. The crew would have to build a filter with whatever they could find in their tiny vessel - whatever they could scavenge without further damaging the vessel.

This YouTube video from the movie Apollo 13 shows the problem, constraints and criteria.

Students in Action

70 minutes

This lesson takes one or two days -- depending on student success. The most important idea I want my students to learn in an introductory engineering experience is that the process is not a one-and-done experience. If students are not successful on day 1, we will continue to apply the engineering design process on subsequent days.

First students restate the problem via whole classroom question and answer. Then I share the constraints and criteria for success. All of these questions will be asked and answered via a whole class instruction. As a first lesson in the engineering design process, I am looking for students to state the big ideas of problem constraints and criteria. This strategy also helps struggling students here again the process, this time stated by students which may provide a new way of stating the process.

Students begin by going to their "office" or assigned seat to sketch three design ideas. Once all members of the team have finished their sketches, they can meet and collaborate to develop a consensus about which watercraft design they will attempt first. The design is built and tested. I setup 6 testing stations in the classroom so there will be little or no waiting. If the watercraft is not successful, students decide on a new design, build and test again.

I want to make sure I have plenty of supplies so students can fully engage in the engineering design process.

Connecting the Learning

10 minutes

When all students have had an opportunity for success, we wrap-up with a whole class discussion. The format of this discussion is organized around identifying the problem, constraints and criteria for success. The purpose of this discussion is to continue to provide students with opportunities to hear and use the vocabulary associated with engineering. As we explore more engineering challenges, the expectation will be that students use the engineering content specific vocabulary as they work and communicate as engineers.