Engineering Aluminum Foil Boats

10 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT design and test a boat that holds the most EXPO markers.

Big Idea

Engineering allows students to see the purpose of learning science. Plus, it's fun!


This lesson introduces students to engineering by having them design, build, and test a boat made of Al foil that holds the most markers.  Students will develop their ability to design solutions to engineering problems and reflect on their designs, resulting in developing connections to Crosscutting Concepts (Cause and Effect and Structure and Function).

Students will have 2 opportunities to develop solutions, reinforcing the idea of redesigning based on previous outcomes.

Designing Possible Solutions

5 minutes

Prior to designing the final solution I like to give each student the opportunity to come up with their own ideas. This allows students to have a voice and ensure that everyone is being heard.  I do this by asking each student to record at least 2 possible solutions in their notebooks.  After about 3 minutes, I ask explain that each person will have 20 seconds to share their ideas.  Once everyone has shared their ideas, the groups discuss various aspects from each design that they would like to incorporate into their one final design.  To thwart any issues surrounding competing ideas, I explain to students that they will have multiple opportunities to develop possible solutions.  They all then make a sketch of the final design in their notebooks.

This video shows what this process might look like in your own classes.

At this point, students may begin asking questions about how much foil they will have access to, how big the markers are, and how large the bin with water will be. They may also inquire how deep the water will be. I allow students to gather all of the information that they need. This enables them to practice measuring and developing solutions to engineering problems (SP1 and SP5).

Students then share their ideas within their group and students pick one design to continue with. This design usually ends up being a combination of different students designs.

Designing and Constructing Boats

10 minutes

Once students have picked their final design, they create a design blue print (using rulers). I want to instill a sense of planning and emphasize that engineers follow steps to create their designs. Having students slow down to create a student blueprint helps them focus, while also creating a plan to follow in the next section.  I don't require students to draw their boats to scale, but you could certainly have that requirement. 

Once students have their blue print for their final design, it is time to build.  I give each group on piece of foil (25 cm x standard length of foil) and tell them that they have 3 minutes to construct their boat.  This keeps kids focused on the task and means that we will have enough time for potentially reflecting, redesigning and rebuilding another boat after the first round of testing.

This stop-motion movie shows students working together to build their boat.

This video presents the importance of giving kids numerous opportunities to go through the iterative design process.  

Testing Our Boats

20 minutes

I like to allow every student to see the testing process, so I project the water bin on the board using a document camera and projector. This enables me to manage the class more easily, as students remain in their seats during this exciting time. Your students will be eager and excited--allow them to have fun, but ask that they don't get out of control. My students recognize and appreciate my effort to instill joy, while maintaining a respectful decorum.

I have one group come up at a time and share their design elements and reasoning for designing their boat that way. I then place the boat in the water bin and place one marker at a time until it begins to take on water or sinks/capsizes. As this is happening, students are recording their observations in their notebooks. They use the observations to redesign their boats.

I explain to students that if their boat has 14 markers and I place number 15 on, which results in sinking.capsizing, that their number of markers is 14, not 15.

I collect EXPO markers that run out of ink over the course of the year and use them for this challenge. If boats end up holding all of the markers, I use other items, such as, K-cups, rulers, erasers, etc.

This year one group made a boat that held 51 markers, 1 K-cup, 1 eraser and a glue stick!  They applied their understanding of volume and surface area to construct a boat that could hold the most markers.  They also measured their cargo and knew the dimensions of the markers.

Reflecting on Our First Designs

8 minutes

Now that students have tested their first design and observed the outcomes of other designs, they have a sense that volume relates to how many markers can be held.  In order to help students make connections to this important topic, I ask them to take the last few minutes of class for reflection.

"How does what we know about volume relate to how we should redesign our aluminum foil boats?

Students then take several minutes to reflect and then discuss with their class how volume relates to their designs.

Students made several important connections:

1) They remembered what volume is -- score one for the good guys! If students couldn't remember, I had them use their notebooks to find the definition. They then thought about it and made connections.

2) Students, especially those that created boats that weren't as successful as others, that volume determines how many markers the boat can hold.  This is also a Cause and Effect (CCC) relationship. If the volume is high then the boat is more likely to hold more cargo. If the volume is low or the dimensions of the boat are in-conducive, then the boat holds less. You can also have students reflect in terms of Structure and Function (CCC), as well. I find that many CCCs result in the reflection outcomes, so feel free to choose the angle that works for your class.