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Project Based Learning – Boat Building in Science 8 – Guest Post by Dani Vavra

June 5, 2013

My journey with PBL began after I took a two-day Science workshop on Problem-Based Learning at the University of Saskatchewan with Jon Treloar, and the next day (a Sunday), I began writing my first PBL for Health and Wellness! Needless to say, I was hooked!  I wasn’t teaching Science at the time, so I adapted what I had learned and applied it to the Health and Wellness curriculum.

While I have done five other PBLs, ranging from Grades 6-10 in  Health, PAA, Art, Horticulture and ELA, each experience is unique learning experience!

In this case, the PBL began more informally and rather abruptly. I have never taught Science 8 before and, as we began our Fluids and Pressure unit, I had an epiphany when students were creating definitions for buoyancy. I realized we could have a lab testing different boats. It struck me that the students could work in teams and design their own boats based on conclusions formed in a lab. We had already done a PBL in October around Human Body Systems, so I piggy-backed on the organization behind that PBL and students familiarity with the process.

 The Process

Materials for BoatsTo begin this PBL, I asked my students in Grade 6-8 if they would enjoy building boats and testing out these concepts in bodies of water around the school (we were still under snowbanks at that time so it was wishful thinking/optimism on my part)!  Surprisingly, they embraced the idea! Getting a chance to go outside and splash around must have had some appeal!

I explained that I wanted them to create a table set up with poster boards to display their knowledge, teach others, and showcase their boats. In small groups, students developed a rubric for the displays, created a list of questions they needed to answer in order to construct their displays  AND  meet the outcomes. It was a tall order, but the students were willing and enthusiastic participants! Next, I asked them what information they needed in order to test a boat’s buoyancy and displacement, and we cross referenced those questions with outcomes in the curriculum for Science 8.

Students researched different hull designs and then we did a lab where students built small hulls and tested them in a controlled setting (Science lab), looking at buoyancy, if the hulls floated or sank, and if they could carry cargo.

Based on their lab conclusions, each group chose a different hull and a model for their boat. Students formed groups based upon which design they wanted to create.  Would it be pirates?  Vikings?  A submarine?   They told me what materials they required, and then began designing poster boards with information about boats, fluids, pressure, density, displacement, and buoyancy. They created scaled drawings of their designs and also prepared to share their information about boats, fluids, and pressure visually either through a Power Point or Prezi.

Testing the Models

Boat Field TestsAfter much preparation, the students were finally ready to test their boats! Our plan was to conduct field tests, looking at buoyancy, determine if the boats were able to float and sink, if they could carry cargo (weight tests), and how it affected their displacement.

The field test day was really windy, and not all of the designs worked as predicted! Despite that, everyone in the class really liked being able to build something, and then go outside and see how it worked in the water.

Our Tech Tools

Throughout the experience, students used a variety of digital tools:

  • Researched information using computers and iPads
  • Studied hull designs using GooglePrezi Example
  • I downloaded a nautical reference guide app about boats on my iPad for them to consult
  • Some groups created boat designs in Google Sketchup
  • Groups could select Power Point or Prezis to share their information (here is a student Prezi)
  • Students videoed, took photos documenting their progress and on the field trial day
  • I used my iPad to video student answers to various questions about their experience
  • We stitched together their responses and their field tests into iMovie and created a 12 minute video!


To assess the students’ understandings of the outcomes as well as their group performance, students did self-assessments and provided overall groupwork feedback based upon the rubric they created. I also distributed questions related to the outcomes and indicators and videotaped student responses to those questions. Once again, I used the class rubric to assess their understanding. We also had a short test to assess curriculum content that was not covered in the boat building.

Pontoon Boat

Pros and Cons of PBL

As you can tell, I am truly hooked on using project-based learning to create authentic learning experiences for my students. And the benefits are truly inspiring!


  • I haven’t yet completed a PBL in the time I initially allot it! This PBL took almost 6 weeks 🙂


  • student engagement and energy
  • the fact that different students bring different skill sets to their team which increases a feeling of success for everyon
  • my role as a guide but not a voice at the front of the room
  • sharing our learning – the posters, presentations, and boats were showcased on tables in the hall in the school for all students to enjoy
  • lastly (but most importantly) – the incredible joy I feel when watching my students actively participate in their learning with enthusiasm..and hearing the fantastic questions they pose!


Dani Vavra teaches at Landis School in Landis, Saskatchewan in the Sun West School Division. Please follow her @DaniVavra.


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  1. Virginia Mireau permalink

    Wow! What an inspiration for the rest of us!

  2. Dani Vavra permalink

    I just noticed that the link to the prezi isn’t working, here’s the new link, hopefully it will be problem free!

  3. Thanks for sharing your PBL.

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