A Cardboard Regatta: Seeing if Cardboard Can Float

I wanted an activity to use with my 7th grade class as part of their Genius Hour-type class (we call it Expert Projects). Having done a cardboard challenge with 5th grade, I decided to look at some new cardboard challenges because I thought it would fit this group well. I saw a post during the Global Cardboard Challenge of a school that did a Cardboard Regatta. Now, this was a school in California, or some other warm weather state, and they were able to do it in an outdoor pool. I’m in Indiana and it was January when we started, with a goal to launch in February. Surprisingly, it didn’t take a lot of work to convince a nearby YMCA to allow us to bring our boats to their indoor pool to have our own Cardboard Regatta.

One of the more successful boats.
One of the more successful boats.

So, on a snowy February day, I transported 6 cardboard boats and 28 7th graders over to the YMCA to do the unimaginable. Before I announced to the kids we were doing this, I googled cardboard regattas to make sure it was possible for cardboard to float. You see, I’m a former English teacher. I know very little about buoyancy or what it takes to engineer anything into a boat, let alone cardboard. But, I had faith the kids would figure it out.

The most successful boat.
The most successful boat.

When I told the kids about it and we settled on the rules there were still a few students not convinced it was possible to get cardboard to float. I assured them it was possible and off they went. The rules that we decided to follow were that boats could only be made of cardboard, tape, and teacher approved recycled materials (one group ended up adding water bottles from our school’s recycle bin across the bottom). No glues, waterproof spray paint, or sealants. Instead of building their own paddles or propulsion, the class decided they would use a kayak paddle I provided.

The SS Coffin was creative and made some progress, but was done in by low backend that took on too much water.
The SS Coffin was creative and made some progress, but was done in by low backend that took on too much water.

The students had 4 weeks working once a week for about 40 minutes each time. The final week, the science teacher gave them an extra class period in order to finish. It would have been nice to have the ability to test their designs before the final regatta, but they all knew going in they’d get one chance.

After all was said and done, 1 boat made it all the way the length of the pool. Another one made it 3/4 the way before it met it’s demise. The rest made it a few strokes before a major design flaw was exposed. One, unfortunately, sank almost immediately.

The group
The group

All the kids were awesome. They were all good natured sink or float. They all cheered and encouraged each other. And, not a single student asked how they would be graded (FYI, they weren’t graded at all). Every group produced a fully constructed boat that at least had a chance to float. I really couldn’t have been more pleased with the outcome. The science teacher checked in on them curiously and asked a few questions. She wasn’t sure it could be pulled off. Now that she’s seen the outcome, she is planning to make it part of a science unit next year to potentially become an annual thing.

One student said it was the “best field trip ever”, but I think he was being a bit hyperbolic. Another student came to my office after school with the sole purpose of thanking me for allowing this opportunity to happen.

If you’ve thought about doing this or are just now learning about it, I say, “do it!” The kids will exceed your expectations and it will be worth it all in the end.

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