Introduction: Fan Boat Frenzy: an Educational STEM Project-Base Learning Experience

About: I created a middle school program called Innovators. Innovator is a project-based program that allows students to choose their projects and explore their curiosities.

The primary aim of this project-based inquiry is to engage in a project that utilizes fundamental engineering skills and data gathering. By combining basic knowledge of electricity with forces and motion, this investigation provides an engaging learning opportunity for students in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. I used this activity to introduce or reinforce the engineering design process with students while building the fan boat. Once the fan boat is complete, we use the scientific method to test and compare designs.

Building the Fan Boats:

I ran this project for many years in my classroom, and one year my students thought it would be fun to challenge other schools. This led to us creating kits and directions. I linked the student direction in the resources. So many STEM/Project-based kits require budgets that are not a reality for the typical elementary classroom. My students and I tried to keep the price as low as possible.


  • Foam meat tray or egg carton top
  • Small DC Motor
  • Craft Sticks
  • Small gauge wire
  • Paper Clips
  • Hot Glue Gun
  • Battery (Battery Holder Optional)

When it comes to your students' building projects, it's important to consider their abilities and your comfort level before choosing the appropriate level of complexity. Kelvin Science offers quality parts and materials at affordable prices, making it a great option to explore. Foam trays from your local grocery or meat market can also be a good alternative. To test the fan boats, stream tables, gutters, and small kiddy pools have all been effective in the past. In fact, we even used a mud puddle outside the classroom for testing one year. While tape and standard glue can be used to assemble the fan boats, hot glue guns are the most effective, affordable, and time-saving option. If you need materials for small projects, DonorsChoose is a great resource to quickly acquire a class set of glue guns and glue sticks. It's also an excellent tool to share with parents for fundraising efforts.

Hot glue is a convenient option when building fan boats, but students must handle it cautiously to prevent burns. Low temp guns should be used to minimize the risk of injury. Students should also remember specific requirements, such as the motor mounting and the propeller's radius height above the water. To strengthen the foam hull and provide a surface for gluing the motor and propeller supports, attach two craft sticks inside the foam hull parallel to its length. This prevents the foam from tearing apart while removing the glue. While the investigation is designed for three propellers, students can only compete with one. For many years I had students use old file folders to cut the propellers out, put a small hole in the center, and use a small amount of hot glue to attach to the motor. This makes it easy to remove and test a different propeller. These are the "I Can Statements" I used with this project. I have also attached all the data collection worksheets that I have used. Most time I have students use a science journal, and we discuss the best way to record our data and let them develop their own charts, but it is helpful to have something to give students if they are struggling or you run out of time.

I Can Statements/Objectives:

· Use simple expressions for finding area and average speed.

· Apply decimals in many applications for the purpose of collecting data and using data to support or disclaim a hypothesis.

· Use math practices to form simple computations to represent and interpret data through line plots and graphs.

· Write an essay using the question of the investigation as a focus and the hypothesis as the thesis.

· Apply Newton’s Three Laws of Motion to correctly describe how my fan boat travels so quickly.

The Fan Boat Investigation linked into this Instructable was created for a local competition we host for other fifth-grade classrooms in our area.


Hot Glue Gun


Paper Clip

Card Stock

Plastic Propellers (Optional from Kelvin Science)

Step 1: Design Task: Creating a Model

Task: Design and build a fan boat that can deliver a load of goods (pennies) quickly and safely.

  1. You will have to use the material provided to design, build, and test your fan boat, but you will need some background information. Search the web for images and ideas on how fan boats work. This way, you will have some background info before you start designing.
  2. Once you have the background and material ready, you must present your ideas to your teacher and fellow students to determine if your understanding of the content, your model, and your investigation process makes logical sense to proceed. You can use paper and pencil to draw it out or use TinkerCAD to create your model.
  3. Proceed to collect materials, build your model, and test. Analyze, present finding to peers, and draft an essay discussing how your fan boat design uses the best science to bring goods to market the quickest and the safest.
  4.  Develop a hypothesis on which propeller design will push your fan boat the fastest.
  5. Analyze, present finding to peers, and draft an essay discussing how your fan boat design uses the best science to bring goods to market the quickest and the safest.

Step 2: Building the Fan Boat

My fifth graders created the Fan Boat Student Directions to share with other students. As a teacher, I try not to influence the design too much, but some students will find this easy, and others will need all the help they can get. I added the direction for those students in the middle so they still have some independence but need some direction and support. Some things to avoid in the design.

The more weight, the more water that gets displaced. The result is more force needed to move the fan boat.

Students always position the motor and the propeller too close to the water, and when they try to increase the size of the propeller, it ends up in the water.

Battery size: I always limited students to a single AA battery. This was just due to a lack of funds. Batteries are not cheap, and a good AA lasts a long time.

Project-Based Learning Contest

This is an entry in the
Project-Based Learning Contest