Thrift Fan Boat Lesson Plan


NGSS Standards Addressed:

  • MS-PS-2 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions
  • MS-PS2-3 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions
  • MS-PS3-1 Energy
  • MS-PS3-3 Energy
  • MS-ETS1-1 Engineering Design
  • MS-ETS1-2 Engineering Design
  • MS-ETS1-3 Engineering Design
  • MS-ETS1-4 Engineering Design

Iowa 21st Century Skills Standards Addressed:

  • 21.6-8.ES.1
  • 21.6-8.ES.2
  • 21.6-8.ES.3
  • 21.6-8.ES.4
  • 21.6-8.ES.5
  • 21.6-8.TL.1
  • 21.6.8.TL.2
  • 21.6-8.TL.3
  • 21.6-8.TL.4

Driving Questions:

  • How can we work collaboratively to create the best possible fan powered boat?
  • What factors matter when creating a fan powered boat?
  • How can we maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of our boat?
  • How do we determine which boat designs are the most effective?

Lesson Time:

In reality, the “Thrift Fan Boat” project would be a unit. The entire learning process would take weeks, if not possibly a couple of months to complete. For the purposes of this lesson, I will be focusing on testing the initial design, and having the students reflect on how they need to alter their design to improve the effectiveness of their boat. We will plan on allocating 60 minutes to testing and data collection, and 30 minutes to analysis and reflection on that data.

Materials Required:

Let’s assume that all the students already have the materials needed to create their boats (junk would be provided by the students, but the following items would be provided to each group):

  • 9v battery
  • 9v battery receptacle
  • toggle switch
  • computer fan
  • 3d printer
  • 3d design software

The materials needed to perform data collection and analysis per group would be as follows:

  • computer with spreadsheet
  • camera
  • some sort of water tub / water body that is large enough to test the boats

Before this Lesson:

Again, for the purpose of this lesson, we are assuming that each student group has already created their initial boat design. Therefore, each group would enter this lesson with a boat fully created and ready for testing. Now, in reality, the odds of all of your students groups achieving this as the same time are pretty slim. More likely, you would teach the process, and then groups would do their testing as needed.

Lesson Overview:

After the initial creation of their Thrift Fan Boat, students will need to test their design in order to see what improvements need to be made to their vessel in order to improve the effectiveness of the boat. Students will have to closely analyze the performance of their boat, and collect data related to its performance in order to make informed decisions as to what needs to be altered for their next design. An emphasis should be placed on what factors are interacting together to make the boat move (or prevent the boat from moving), and how to overcome any factors that are inhibiting the movement of their boat.

Lesson Sequence:

Day 1 (Testing):

Initially, students will need to see what appropriate testing and data collection looks like.

For this, you will want to have an example boat ready for testing. You could either use one of your own design, a previous student design, or possibly one of the quick finishing student groups’ designs.

Demonstrate how to set up the camera, so that it is ready to record the test.

Before testing, have students predict what they think will happen with the boat. Will it sink? Move? Spin in circles? I’d suggest having them discuss this in their groups and explain why they are thinking that (it will probably be tough the first time through, so model your own thinking).

Then, test the boat. Record the test, so you can review it later.

After the initial test, have students analyze what happened. Did it move? Did it sink? Did the fan work? Were their predictions correct? Was the boat successful?

Next, have the students discuss in their groups, what factors or forces were impacting the boat? How did they impact the boat? What challenges need to be overcome? Review the video of the test as needed.

Next, you need to figure out a way for students to collect data and scientifically approach testing the boats. At this point, you have identified the factors that impact the boat. I would have students focus on how they can test these things. For example, the bouyancy of the boat could be tested by measuring how much of the boat in / above the water; the speed of the boat could be tested by recording the distance it travels over time; the speed of the propeller might be able to be tested in some way; the amount of air the propeller puts out (if applicable) could be tested in some way. Tell the students that they need to identify what is important and then come up with a way to test. Decide as a class one thing to test, and then work together to create a spreadsheet to record the data.

After you have demonstrated this entire process, then allow students to test their boats, identify factors, and figure out what and how to test and record their data. Your job will be to support the groups in this goal, asking questions to push them in the right direction towards testing and recording data successfully.

Day 2 (Data Analysis / Reflection):

The focus of day 2 will be for students to analyze their data, reflect on the performance of their boat, and decide on their next course of action to improve the design.

I would begin this class by showing a quick montage of each group’s test videos, so the class can see how each boat design did. Say that at the end of the day, each group will present their findings, and say how they will be moving forward with their design.

Again, this is going to need to be modeled for the students. Base your demonstration off of your test boat from the previous day. For our purposes let’s say my test boat did not have enough bouyancy to keep the propeller above water (which was actually the case with my prototype).

Show the students the data from the day before. Guide students to reflect on the data. X amount of the back of the boat was below the water surface; Y amount of the front of the boat was below the water surface. What does this tell us about the weight distribution of the boat? How can we counteract this? What changes could be made to the boat design to combat this problem? Looking at the video, what other issues might we consider when re-designing or boat?

Then, as a class, fill out your “plan” for the next design iteration:

  1. Please attach a link to your video and briefly describe the performance of your boat.
  2. Please attach the data your collected related to your boat, and write a summary of what that data means to you.
  3. What do you see as your main obstacle in making you boat effective? Explain why you think this is your main obstacle.
  4. What other factors influenced the performance of your boat? Why are they not as important as your main obstacle?
  5. How are you going to change your design to address your main obstacle? Why do you think this will be effective?
  6. Please describe any other changes you are going to make to your design, and give a brief explanation as to why you are making those changes.

Once you have modeled this process, have students individually do this for their own boats. Once students have addressed these questions individually. Allow them to group back up and compare what they have written. Then, the group can make a final decision as to how they will proceed with their boat design.

Assessment / Reflection:

Students will be formatively assessed throughout the process by monitoring their work and testing, and asking timely questions that probe students’ thoughts on how their project and experiment is going, and what they are doing with that information.

The summative assessments will be in the form of their reflection and their plan for their next design iteration.

It is noteworthy that the assessment should be much for focused on the students’ thinking, reflection, evidence, and planning as opposed to the actual boat performance. However, I would probably provide some sort of incentive in the form of “Best Boat” awards, to encourage the students to make the best possible boat they can.


This project will extend naturally through the progression of students creating the best boat possible. Involving the community could be a part of this by hosting some sort of boat racing event that is open to other students and staff in the school, or other persons living in the community. This could be further extended through a digital broadcast, certainly by recording videos to be shared later on Youtube, but possibly even a live streaming event using something like Ustream.

Lesson Rationale:

In order to successfully build a working Thrift Fan Boat, students must constantly engage with a continuous feedback loop. In this feedback loop, students will build and test their model, always aiming to improve the performance of their boat. Feedback will mostly come in the form of their boat’s performance, which after witnessing, students will need to reflect on deeply to determine what happened and why it happened. Students will not only engage with their own thought, but will also discuss with peers, and be exposed to directing questions by the teacher. This system of feedback will be effective because it is focused on the three questions Hattie, Fisher, and Frey describe as important when students receive feedback; Where am I going (creating an effective boat)? How am I going (is my boat effective now)? and Where do I need to go next (how do I make my boat better)? (Hattie, Fisher, & Frey, 2016)

The continuous feedback loop provided in this lesson falls in line with Dylan Wiliam’s research which shows that, “the best feedback provides information not just about current performance, but also about how to improve future performance” (2016). By focusing our assessments on how the students are thinking about their boat designs and the challenges they face, we show that we are more concerned with the students and their abilities, as about to the task itself (Wiliam, 2016). In reality, the learning goals of this lesson are not about creating a working Thrift Fan Boat, but rather that students can use data and observation to solve a complicated problem; a skill that will be needed in their future lives.

In order to make the most out of the lesson, it is important that the teacher never tell the students what they should do with their boat designs. Rather, it is the teacher’s job to use questions to direct the students’ focus on the appropriate factors that are inhibiting their boat. It should be left to the students to discover what specific changes need to be made in order to make the boat most effective. “Making feedback into detective work encourages students to look at the feedback more closely and to think about their original work more analytically” (Wiliam, 2016).

How-to / Additional Support:

For a complete walk-through on how to make a Thrift Fan Boat, please refer to my earlier blog post.


Hattie, J. j., Fisher, D. d., & Frey, N. n. (2016). Do They Hear You?. Educational Leadership, 73(7), 16-21.

Wiliam, D. d. (2016). The Secret of Effective FEEDBACK. Educational Leadership, 73(7), 10-15.

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