The acronym STEM is used to describe everything from summer camps to careers. When applied to curriculum, it means that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are taught together, rather than separately. Here at LMS this interdisciplinary approach makes perfect sense. There’s no way to build a boat without using knowledge from all four disciplines, just as there’s no way to fully understand boatbuilding without building a boat.

Last Saturday, we took boat-related STEM curriculum and our belief that children (and maybe everyone!) learn better through hands-on activities to the Charleston STEM Festival. Since we couldn’t build full size wooden boats with the 10,000 expected attendees, we decided to host the Buoyancy Challenge. For five straight hours we handed tinfoil to kids, with instructions to shape the tinfoil into a boat that would hold as many coins as possible before sinking. The Buoyancy Challenge is a simple experiment that teaches many STEM concepts. Children also get really excited about it.

What’s so exciting about floating tinfoil? You don’t have to sit still, and you get to make something. Kids happily sat on the ground (or even better, on a sheet of plywood) and could wiggle all they wanted while shaping their boat, floating it and loading it with coins. Some kids asked questions of LMS staff or their parents: Is there a shape that holds more? What’s the record amount of coins? Will my boat tip over? Common answers: What do you think? How could you test that? Let’s try it!

Other kinds of questioning were also taking place. Some children asked themselves questions, silently reviewing their knowledge and pondering their tinfoil until settling on a design. Other children tested several designs and load distributions, making changes after each test.  Still others watched friends and siblings, or riffled through the pile of discarded boats before forming a design.

Does this sound familiar? It’s the scientific method in action, seeking to understand physics. Physics, which is so tightly bound with mathematics you can’t teach the science without math. Observing what happens to different shapes of tinfoil boats grants a basic understanding of the physics and math of buoyancy and boat design, which will make the numbers involved much easier to work with when kids reach these concepts in school. It’s also fascinating.

Sitting beside kindergarteners and middle schoolers, we discussed how flat, barge-like boats carried the most weight but probably wouldn’t move very quickly. Faces lit up with understanding as tinfoil boats were compared to actual boats that kids had seen or been on. Future engineers asked question after question about boat design.

Some kids were sitting in the sun tearing tinfoil or watching pennies sink into water, but don’t confuse this with lack of learning or wasted time. Getting to know the properties of different materials is necessary to design technology that can improve boat design, shipping and a whole host of other things.

Oh yeah, the most successful boat held 154 coins. How much did the load of mixed coins weigh, you ask? Well, how would you figure that out?