As the year is winding down, one of my fourth grade teachers and I decided to do a final maker activity. “What are you reading right now?” I asked. When he told me the class read aloud was The Young Man and the Sea by Rodman Philbrick, I knew exactly what our project should be. At the start of the year, I’d been exploring Sphero Edu and saw a project that used Spheros to power boats. Perfect!

Problem Scoping:

I’ve been reading the research coming out of the Tufts Novel Engineering Project. In particular, I’ve focused on the paper by Jessica Watkins, Kathleen Spencer, and David Hammer that explains how students can use novels as a means of problem scoping. They explain that problem scoping is what engineers do when they determine the “nature and boundaries” of a problem. Novels and other literature provide opportunities for students to mine the text for details in order to define a problem that needs a solution. While the Tufts Engineering school researchers naturally focus on how novels can lead to better engineering, I like how it requires students to dig into the text. Problem scoping requires students to practice the skill of close reading.

In this case, our problem scoping was fairly light. The kids explained Skiff’s problem: he needs to catch a tuna in order to raise money and help his family. To get more details, I asked a clarifying question: “Will he need to pull the tuna up into the boat, or will he drag it behind?” They told me he’d be dragging it. Therefore, we knew that any boat they would design would need to be able to go out into the water, and then pick up the tuna and drag it back. The tuna, in our case, would be a blue clothespin with a rock glued to it.

I also ask kids to think about limitations. Limitations might come from the story or they might come from the context in which the making is taking place. In this case, I told them that they would have one class to design and build, and the following class we would do finishing details then motor our boats in a kiddie pool. I also gave them the requirement that the boat had to be powered by the Sphero. In terms of materials, I put out some scrap wood and told them they needed to use the wood as is (no cutting). I also gave them cardboard, craft sticks, mini dowels, straws, corks, and empty water bottles. They were allowed to use LEGO bricks as well.

Design & Build:

The teacher assigned groups. This teacher, Mr. Flaherty, and I had attended a maker workshop together and one part of that workshop was going around and looking at each other team’s project and seeing how what they were doing might help your own design. We stressed that this was not a competition, and that ideas were not sacred: they could and should borrow from one another. We also pointed out that we were looking for collaboration within the groups. With that, the groups started building. We had the Spheros and a rubber tub of water so that they could test as they built.Sphero Boat in tub of water while kids look on.


Designing and building went quickly, and kids did work very well together, making and taking suggestions as they worked. Having the opportunity to test was essential as many boats tipped or sank once the Sphero was introduced.

Launching & Reflecting:

With help from our awesome custodian, Steve, I filled the kiddie pool in our front courtyard. The kids had ten minutes to complete their designs, then we all went outside to test the final designs. Here’s where the magic happened! Each boat was tested in turn. Some did fine, while others need minor adjustments. What was magical was that classmates outside of the group offered helpful suggestions. For example, one group had built a little platform for the Sphero, but when they put their boat in, it tipped over. Kids from outside the group suggested that they flip the whole boat over — it worked! In the video you can see a quick cut of the “before” and “after”.


When boats “failed”, students were able to quickly reconfigure them. One group had added empty water bottles for buoyancy, but these proved too effective and the Sphero did not touch the water. So, they quickly removed them. Another group had added a sail, but this made the boat unsteady, and they needed to take it off. Unfortunately their cardboard boat, now wet, was falling apart. This group demonstrated resilience as they took the entire boat apart, salvaged what parts they could, and created a new, workable boat.

After each boat had its turn, we lined them up in the grass. I asked them to imagine that they were boat designers for Hinckley Yachts (4th graders study Maine, including Maine industries, so highlighting a Maine company gives a quick touch to that learning target). They’ve all been working in teams to develop a prototype of a new fishing boat powered by a giant rotating sphere. Now they need to come together and get the best ideas from each design. “What design feature from each boat would you take for your final design?” I asked. They pointed to needing to have the Sphero enclosed so that it didn’t separate from the boat. Boats needed just the right amount of buoyancy — too much and the Sphero is ineffective, to little and the boat sinks. They also pointed out the aerodynamics and flat bottom of one boat. Together we were able to find the strength of each boat. I love this reflection piece because it showed real critical thinking skills on the part of the students.

This was one of my favorite projects we did this year, and it only took two class periods!



Watkins, Jessica; Spencer, Kathleen; and Hammer, David (2014) “Examining Young Students’ Problem Scoping in Engineering Design,” Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER): Vol. 4: Iss. 1, Article 5.

Fishing Boat Designers

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