As is common in life, disasters teach lessons. I learned a great deal from the disaster that was our boat project last year. My teaching partner and I intended to integrate our math, physics, and humanities curricula into an extensive semester-long Boat Project, with students answering the essential question: How did ancient civilizations influence one another? Selecting civilizations that traveled by boat, our main focus in science was the physics behind how those boats worked. We incorporated several scaffolding activities toward building miniature sailboats, including taking sailing lessons and developing and revising prototypes of our work. It turns out that building boats was simply a bad idea.
The big reason that the project failed was small holes. One big flaw in my plan caused a flood of smaller problems. I thought we would be able to use plywood, squared-off Popsicle sticks, a little caulk, and some paint and polyurethane to build waterproof hulls for our sailboats. I was wrong. The students were not as careful as I had hoped when building the frames, leaving gaps that were much too large to fix with caulk alone.
This major design flaw caused several problems. First, the repairs and delays increased the cost of the project. Second, and possibly more important, students got the sense that repairing flawed designs after construction would still work, which is not a habit that I want to impart to them. Third, the time required to fix the boats made us miss our scheduled date for testing them at the community pool.
Despite all this, I was not willing to give up. I extended the boat project into the second semester, but soon realized that the students were not learning enough to justify the amount of time we were spending on one topic. Moreover, the students themselves were starting to lose interest.
Finally, the big day arrived and we were ready to test the boats. After two hours in the pool, we noticed boats taking on water through near-invisible cracks in the hull. I had to cut the testing short, and by mid-day only a few boats were salvageable after water had leaked in and damaged the hulls.
One of the things that I learned is that it is very difficult to make objects waterproof. This is a lesson I will not soon forget. This year my new teaching partner and I are going to try the project again with one major change. There will be no boats this year, and therefore, no need to build waterproof hulls. Instead, each student will build two drafts of a sail car that will move into the wind, which will allow us to work with many of the same physics concepts.
Personally, I’ll never do a project that involves water-somewhat-proofing again! I have shared this story with many colleagues and have heard many stories of catastrophe in return. But as I mentioned at the beginning, disasters teach us lessons, and at least we took the risk. We hope that the changes we have made will keep this year’s Boat Project on schedule, under budget, and authentic for students. We believe the project is worth another try and, with only mild trepidation, we are excited to roll out the new design.