Aluminum Foil Boats

A prototype of an aluminum foil boat before being put into water or weight added.

ENGINEERING – Try this experiment that can be used for science, engineering, or technology, or computer science.

This task is a common introductory, team building, or instant invention activity used across many grade levels. An emphasis on science and engineering practices, critical thinking skills, and team building process skills is appropriate when used in this manner.

This lesson is from a computer science curriculum, but is applicable to any curriculum for introducing the importance of teamwork and problem solving and training students in classroom procedures. The aluminum boats problem could easily be substituted out for any number of other problems that require students to define their goals, devise a plan, try a solution, evaluate their results, and then iteratively improve. The problem chosen is intentionally “non-computational” and helps to frame it as one about problem-solving more generally with computer science being a new “tool” to help attack certain types of problems.

Scroll to the bottom to find out how other teachers adapted this lesson for their classrooms.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Communicate and collaborate with classmates in order to solve a problem
  • Iteratively improve a solution to a problem
  • Identify different strategies used to solve a problem


For each group

  • 2 sheets of aluminum foil, 5×5 inches in length each
  • 1 container that can hold 3-5 inches of water
  • Several paper towels or rags that can be placed under the container
  • 15 pennies
  • One copy of the Aluminum Boats Student Activity Guide

Activity (30 min)

Group: Put students in groups of 2 or 3.

Support: Give students a couple minutes to discuss in groups the approach they will take with this first boat. Once groups have recorded their ideas and some possible weaknesses, they can come to you to get their aluminum foil and begin building their boats.

Once groups are ready, have them test their boats by dropping individual pennies into the boat. Remind them of the rules, specifically that they can’t touch or adjust the boats once they’re in the water. Have them record the total number of pennies held on their activity guides.

Iterative Improvement

Share: Have students share the results of their first run with neighboring groups. Ask groups to focus particularly on what the eventual failure of their boat was (e.g. it wasn’t deep enough, it was unstable, etc.) and brainstorm ways to get around those problems.

Prompt: Now that you’ve had a chance to learn from the first round of boatmaking, let’s run the same activity again. First, your group will develop a new plan. Just as before, record it on your activity guide, and once you’re ready I’ll come around and give you a new piece of foil.

Support: As you circulate from group to group, ask questions about the group’s focus in redesign. EX: “What aspect of your boat needed the most improvement?” “What ideas from other groups did you want to incorporate to yours?” “Did you feel the need to completely restructure your boat, or make minor modifications?”

Once groups have prepared their new plans give them a new piece of foil and have them each build a new boat.

Groups can test their designs just as before and record the results on their activity guides.

Transition: Ask class to return to their own seats to reflect on the activity.

Wrap Up (10 mins)

Discuss the Challenge

Prompt: What was your favorite part of this activity? What was most challenging?

Discuss: Allow students time to share thoughts with the class.

Discussion Goal – This should be a fairly open-ended discussion of the different components of the activity. Feel free to ask follow up questions if you like but the main goal is just to kick off the later conversation.

Prompt: Since you are in a computer science class, you also may be wondering, “What in the world did that have to do with computer science?” Find another partner and talk about what you think this activity has to do with computer science.

Discuss: Allow students an opportunity to share their responses with the class.

Although there are no right or wrong answers for this discussion, for our purposes, the main point is that students solved a problem. They had to define the problem, plan a solution, try a solution, and evaluate it.

Teaching Tips:

  • This activity can get your room wet! Ideally, each group should have its own bucket/container with water to conduct its own tests. If needed, you can have several groups share one container, but be mindful to set guidelines for sharing that container. Place towel/rag under each container. You may also want to consider having this activity in the hallway or some other space if your room is very restrictive.
  • Hold onto the foil until students submit a plan for their boat. The goal isn’t to slow them down too much, but just give them a moment to reflect briefly on the possible approaches they could take. 
  • While some students will view this portion as a competition, emphasize that each group is looking to improve its own design, not competing against others. You are appealing for each student to challenge themselves first, not others.

Adapted Lessons:

STEM Boat Challenge – View how Timothy Baszak used this lesson in his STEM class for grades 5-8 at Waypoint Academy.

Additional Resources

Education Standards

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

Grade Bands
3-5 6-8 9-12
Engineering and Technology Content Standards



3-5-ETS1-2. Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

3-5-ETS1-3. Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

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.

HS-ETS1-2. Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.

HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

Cross-cutting concept ·         Scale, proportion, and quantity

·         Systems and system models

Science Practices ·         Planning and carrying out investigations

·          Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)

·         Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

Grade Bands
6-8 9-10 11-12
Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects WHST.6-8.1b  Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant, accurate data and evidence that demonstrate an understanding of the topic or text, using credible sources.

WHST.6-8.2a  Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes. Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information into broader categories as appropriate to achieving purpose; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

WHST.9-10.2a  Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes. a. Introduce a topic and organize ideas, concepts, and information to make important connections and distinctions; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., figures, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension. WHST.11-12.2a  Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes. Introduce a topic and organize complex ideas, concepts, and information so that each new element builds on that which precedes it to create a unified whole; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., figures, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

Internal Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standards for Students

ISTE Standards•S 4 Innovative Designer – Students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.

  1. Students know and use a deliberate design process for generating ideas, testing theories, creating innovative artifacts or solving authentic problems.
  2. Students develop, test and refine prototypes as part of a cyclical design process.
  3. Students exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance and the capacity to work with open-ended problems.