The Courier » Whatever floats your boat: Students get a lesson in science

Whatever floats your boat: Students get a lesson in science

ZACH SMITH, center, and Jackson Zinna struggle but keep their boat afloat on Donnell Pond Tuesday afternoon, while Emmy Caton has smooth sailing behind them. Donnell sixth-graders designed cardboard boats in science class before trying them out on the pond. (Photo by Randy Roberts)


“Why do we need to know this? Who cares?”

These are questions Bryan Miller’s sixth-grade science students sometimes ask him, but as they made cardboard boats to sail on Donnell Pond, it became clear why concepts like density, mass and volume are important.

Boats would help students understand those topics, but “what kid wants to sit in class and talk about boats?” Miller said.

“Kids want to build them. That’s what they want to do. They want to build them, and then they want to float them and get in it.”

Students spent two weeks researching why and how boats float and working on their designs. On Tuesday and Wednesday, it was time to test their projects.

“It was interesting to watch the kids work and just see it all click,” Miller said.

About a week into research, they started connecting concepts and realizing why they needed to know certain things, Miller said.

“And just to hear the terminology that was being thrown out during class. ‘OK, what about the buoyant force?’ You know, “OK, Archimedes’ Principle,'” he said. “I loved it because they were looking up information about the Titanic, and why the Titanic sank, and it was great because they used those concepts.”

Though it went down, that ship inspired some groups to build compartments in hopes that a potential leak would fill one section instead of the whole boat.

That design worked exactly as intended for one boat on Tuesday, Miller said. One compartment filled up, and the boat sat a bit lower in the water, but it stayed in good enough shape to complete the course around the pond.

“We wanted it to float, so we built an air chamber,” said Bhoomi Mehta, speaking Wednesday about a boat with a pointed bow and compartments sturdy enough to sit on.

The vessel was painted with pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness and covered in plastic, Nolan Tiech said.

The boat wasn’t sturdy enough at first, so they added cardboard until it was, Rebecca Heft said.
“We had lots of pieces” to cover in lots of duct tape, she added.

Whirlpool donated enough dishwasher boxes for each group to use two.

Miller purchased some additional supplies, but didn’t draw attention to them. The point, he said, was for students to figure out how to seal the boats.

“If they asked about it, then I would get it out,” he said. “So immediately duct tape was the first one that came to mind.”

Students also used plastic wrap, spray-on sealants, hot glue, or a combination of materials on the same boat. Some groups bought additional supplies.

Madison Feller, Lauren Gayhart and Alexia Reed did not skimp on waterproofing: They used two layers of duct tape, one coat of Flex Seal and two layers of waterproofing spray on their boat, which was white with black spots and a cow face on the front.

They thought about doing a Mayflower theme, Madison said, but they decided to make a “moo”-torboat instead.

The girls were confident their boat would make it around the loop from the north end of the pond out to the fountain — not too close, Miller warned the students — and back.

The cardboard and all the waterproofing totaled eight pounds, Alexia said. They’d spent hours doing the math.

“I was stressing out so hard” about the calculations, said Lauren, who worked on them at home.

But their boat, and most of the others, did float. After all the researching, designing and building, the tougher part for the students seemed to be finding a good paddling technique. One student tried to manage two paddles. Others had high-sided boats that made paddling awkward.

The paddles were borrowed from Hancock Park District, along with life jackets.

Miller wondered whether the weeks of research might dampen students’ enthusiasm for the project, but “not once did it deter them. I think it only encouraged them more. They got more excited as they started to figure the pieces of the puzzle out.”

Rubright: 419-427-8417
Send an E-mail to Kathryne Rubright
Twitter: @kerubright


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