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November 18, 2014 The Recycling Regatta: An Engineering Design Challenge By Meghan Everette
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    STEM and STEAM education initiatives have caught on around the country, focusing on the need for creative problem solving and future leaders in the math, science, and engineering fields. Pair a fun design challenge with recycling and creative kids, and you end up with a STEM project that fosters learning and a love of science.

    Each year the Cub Scouts have a weekend camp with a "Raingutter Regatta." The boys alter prefab boat kits and blow on the sails to race boats in a moat made from a rain gutter filled with water. My own children are Scouts and five of my current students are in the den as well. To add to the typical fun and games this year, we added the Recycling Regatta; a boat design challenge and race with recycled materials and limited time.

    The boys were divided into teams of four. Each team was given a plastic sack of reclaimed trash and simple materials. One hot glue gun was on hanRain gutter regattad for the groups to share with adult supervision.

    The sacks contained:

    • Clear tape

    • A plastic cup

    • A wax coated paper plate

    • Two craft foam sheets

    • Twine

    • Another plastic bag

    • A section of cardboard

    Bags for recycling regatta

    • Zip ties

    •  Tin foil

    •  Foil tape (for decoration)

    • A straw

    • A plastic knife

    • Clear tape

    •  Foil tape (for decoration)

    • Scissors


    The challenge was set: create a boat that would float and race in the rain gutter within 25 minutes and using only the supplies provided. Kids broke into their groups and began working. Time was called at each five minute interval as kids raced to design boats. Because of their knowledge of the prefab boat design, many groups opted for a mast and sail similar to that. Each team was allotted one trial sail, to make sure the boat would move, hold up in water, and fit inside the gutter.

    Recycling regatta group work Recycling regatta group work Recycling regatta group work

    Teams were put in a round-robin computer system, but a simple bracket would work easily as well. Kids enjoyed making creative boat names. Each boat was raced at least three times, if it could hold up in the water. A surprising front-runner was the balloon boat, which was nothing more than a last minute sack of air entered into the competition.

    Recycling regatta boat example Recycling regatta boat example Recycling regatta balloon boat

    Natural “kid talk” was the key to the education connections with this event. As I walked around the groups, kids were discussing what would float, using words like “dimension” and theorizing about air flow. Simple questions like, “How do you know,” or “Why do you think?” led to inquiry, discussion, and discovery.

     Recycling regatta blowing Recycling regatta racing Recycling regatta top heavy boat

    Finally, everyone was presented with a participation certificate and the first four places were honored with recycled ribbons made from marker tops, plastic eggs, and a good bit of hot glue. The non-floating boats were given “landlubber” awards complete with discarded matchbox cars.

    Recycling regatta recycled awards

    The entire event took about an hour to prepare and used mostly trash or classroom supplies. To complete the event inside, simply balance a rain gutter between two tables and use a tub to fill with water. Older students can create more complex sail designs while young students can work on what sinks versus floats. We designed within the 25-minute time frame and took less than 30 minutes racing our six teams. That’s a lot of engineering, math, and science investigation for an hour of time!

    I’m excited to bring this design challenge back to my classroom as we study about weight, measurement, wind measurement, and learn about collaborative teams. See how fellow blogger Kriscia Cabral brings design challenges to her classroom.


    What design challenges have lead to student learning in your class?

    Recycling regatta fun



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