Learning From Failure

Learning From Failure (Aluminum boats) (Appropriate for all ages)

This activity is to test how much buoyancy a boat has by adding weight to it until it sinks.  By knowing how much weight it takes to sink, a person can estimate how good of a design they have.  This failure can give an engineer a good idea about how safe their design is.  The students might need an analogy to their experiment.  For example, a test like this is important to know so you have limits for how many people can board a ship.

The students can use pieces of aluminum foil (3” by 3”) to make containers/shells that act like canoes, boats, or barges. The ‘boats’ are tested in 3-4” of water in a medium sized circular container (18” diameter).  The ‘boat’ is placed in the water without any weights in it and weights (pennies) are slowly added until the ‘boat’ sinks.  After the first design, the students can make one change and test to see how the change affects the buoyancy. 

This activity is iterative so encouraging multiple revisions is really good.  The helpers need to manage the water carefully and make sure the area doesn’t become messy.  The students may need help making their first container so helping them make a simple container is fine.  I would make something rectangular and then the student can make something more square in shape.  I am going to add tape as a material so they have more flexibility.  The better boats will displace the most volume.


  • Helpers will need to continuously clean the table. Cloth and paper towels will be provided.
  • It may be more expedient if the helpers add the coins.
  • To keep the students from having wet hands, I would suggest that the helpers collect the sunken parts.