Recipe for a STEAM Lab: Boats!

Oh no, STEAM Lab is tomorrow.

For whatever reason, STEAM Lab is one of those programs that sneaks up on me. Other programs, I can devote months of meticulous planning to, but STEAM Lab often involves me wandering into our program supplies closet and going, “Welp, what can we make out of this crap?”

Ken Jeong Masks GIF by The Masked Singer - Find & Share on GIPHY
Me, every other Saturday.

For this reason, I have developed some stand-by STEAM activities (mostly engineering based) that I can throw together with no prep and no special materials.

The best of these, my friends, is boat building.

The Challenge

Can you build a boat out of recycled materials that will float while holding at least one toy dinosaur?

Why do so many of our STEAM Labs involve dinosaurs? Because we have to use the DiNovember dinosaurs for something, obviously.

The Materials

Literally anything you have on hand that can be built with and/or destroyed, plus something that can hold a decent amount of water. I look for supplies that will hold up well in water (bubble wrap, aluminum foil, corks) as well as supplies that will do terribly in water (paper, school glue) to allow kids to observe how different materials react.

Corks can be great – assuming yours don’t smell too boozy. You can also buy unused corks from somewhere like Amazon if the single-usedness of it doesn’t bother you.

I usually bring out:

  • at least 2 large, clear, plastic tubs of water (clear makes it easier to see what sinks, but it isn’t necessary). These are our big marble run containers (not pictured: the huge pile of marble run materials dumped out all over the floor of the closet).
  • tarps or plastic tablecloths to put under your water, if you’re inside
  • towels to dry off hands
  • things to adhere with: tape, glue, rubber bands, twist ties, binder clips, pipe cleaners, staplers, string
  • things to cut with: scissors, hole punches
  • things to build with: aluminum foil, plastic wrap, bubble wrap, craft sticks, straws, corks, sandwich bags, cardboard, paper – basically anything out of your recycling
  • boat passengers: we use toy plastic dinosaurs to test all our STEAM Lab projects, because that’s what we have. You could use literally anything else, from pennies to action figures.
  • random extras. You never know what kids might use! I’ve thrown out markers, stickers, cotton swabs, ribbon, yarn, broken plastic easter eggs, leftover fake flowers from an adult program – basically anything I did not want in our closet anymore
She’s chosen some new materials to experiment with, with some guidance from her grown-up.

The Questions

Pirates Of The Caribbean Ship GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Re-enactment of most of our boats at STEAM Lab.

Our main investigation, of course, is the concept of buoyancy, and how we can make reasonable predictions about what will make our boats sink or float. Many kids spend the first half hour or so building increasingly complex, heavy boats, that look like boats they’ve seen on TV, and which immediately sink like rocks. To try and get them to experiment more with their problem solving, I ask questions like:

  • What materials have you tried so far?
  • What do you observe happening to your boat when you put it in the water?
  • The paper and glue seem to be falling apart in the water. Can you choose another type of material and make a prediction about what it will do in the water?
  • I see your boat is tipping over! Which side of your boat is the heaviest?
  • Where are the places water is coming into your boat? What would you like to use to try to plug that spot up?

The Results

No surprises here – this is a wet, messy project! But kids love any opportunity to play in water, so I consider this a win. One of the best things about the boat project is the way it keeps both kids and their grown-up engaged. Every time we’ve done it, families stay and experiment the entire hour (or the entire 90 minutes, if we have enough time). That kind of persistent engagement is a sign of quality learning.

The HMS Dinosaur is ready to sail!

The downside? It’s the downside to a lot of STEAM Lab projects: waste. This produces a lot of failed prototypes that head straight for the garbage. At the very least, this is a project that can make use of recyclable products and leftovers from other programs, though be aware that once different types of recyclables have been combined and covered in tape and glue, they are likely no longer recyclable (unless you’re able to separate them back out to their disparate parts).

Overall, this is one of my favorite no-prep programs to bust out. What are yours? Share them in the comments!


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