Aluminum Foil Boat Design: Surviving the Stormy Seas
People have used boats to transport things around the world for thousands of years. Unfortunately, those boats can be vulnerable to stormy seas and they can capsize. This lesson expands on the classic "aluminum foil boat" project. Normally, students would build a boat from a sheet of aluminum foil and see how much weight it can hold—in still water—before sinking. In this project, they will find out how well their boats hold up to waves!
- Understand how a real-world problem can be solved through engineering
- Apply the engineering design process to iteratively improve a design
NGSS AlignmentThis lesson helps students prepare for these Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations:
- MS-ETS1-1. Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.
- MS-ETS1-2. Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
- MS-ETS1-3. Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.
- MS-ETS1-4. Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.
Science & Engineering Practices
Asking Questions and Defining Problems. Define a design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process or system and include multiple criteria and constraints, including scientific knowledge that may limit possible solutions.
Developing and Using Models. Evaluate limitations of a model for a proposed object or tool.
Engaging in Argument from Evidence. Evaluate competing design solutions based on jointly developed and agreed-upon design criteria.
Disciplinary Core Ideas
PS2.A: Forces and Motion. The motion of an object is determined by the sum of the forces acting on it; if the total force on the object is not zero, its motion will change. The greater the mass of the object, the greater the force needed to achieve the same change in motion. For any given object, a larger force causes a larger change in motion.
ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems. The more precisely a design task's criteria and constraints can be defined, the more likely it is that the designed solution will be successful. Specification of constraints includes consideration of scientific principles and other relevant knowledge that are likely to limit possible solutions.
ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions. A solution needs to be tested, and then modified on the basis of the test results, in order to improve it.
Sometimes parts of different solutions can be combined to create a solution that is better than any of its predecessors.
ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solutions. The iterative process of testing the most promising solutions and modifying what is proposed on the basis of the test results leads to greater refinement and ultimately to an optimal solution.
Influence of Science, Engineering, and Technology on Society and the Natural World. The uses of technologies and limitations on their use are driven by individual or societal needs, desires, and values; by the findings of scientific research; and by differences in such factors as climate, natural resources, and economic conditions.
Structure and Function. Structures can be designed to serve particular functions by taking into account properties of different materials, and how materials can be shaped and used.
Stability and Change. Stability might be disturbed either by sudden events or gradual changes that accumulate over time.
- Aluminum foil
- Large plastic tubs (more tubs will allow more students to test at once)
- Uniform small objects to use as "cargo." You can use whatever you have available: coins, marbles, beans, etc.
- Meter stick
- Object to drop to create waves, like a rock or heavy ball
Background Information for TeachersThis section contains a quick review for teachers of the science and concepts covered in this lesson.
Building small boats out of aluminum foil and testing to see how much weight, typically in the form of pennies, the boats can hold before sinking is a classic science activity (Figure 1). It teaches students about physics concepts like buoyant force and density and engineering design as they work iteratively to improve their boats. (See the Additional Background section for more details).
Figure 1. The classic "aluminum foil boats and pennies" project.
In this lesson plan, we take a twist on the boat building activity to add some additional engineering steps and real-world context, and encourage students to exercise their problem-identification and solving skills. This lesson is anchored in the fact that humans have been using boats for transportation for thousands of years—and boats have always been vulnerable to sinking, resulting in loss of human life.
Modern technologies like GPS, radar, weather forecasting, and radio communication have made boating safer. However, in recent years, many migrants fleeing war-torn countries have resorted to very dangerous journeys on overloaded, poor-quality boats that can easily capsize or sink in stormy seas (see New York Times article in Additional Background section). This provides a pertinent real-world application for this project. Instead of testing the boats in still water, your students will test them in "stormy seas" by dropping a ball into the water to create waves. Will an overloaded boat sink easily? Can they do anything to solve this problem? Try this lesson to help students understand how engineering can impact people's lives.