A Fantastic and Fun Floatilla Design and Engineering Challenge

May 31, 2024

You don’t get to see – or experience – this in a typical Middle School day: Our 8th-graders sailed off into the sunset (or at least the Wheeler Farm pool) in a special design and engineering challenge. The “Floatilla” project invited each advisory group to prototype and build a boat out of plywood that could float and be swift to survive a simple obstacle course.

A few of the boats lined up on the side of the pool at Wheeler Farm.

“The objective was to help the students and their advisors learn more about design and the science behind the question, ‘Why does a penny sink and a cruise liner float?'” said Head of Strategic Innovation Young Un P’12. “Each group first created a boat prototype using cardstock and chose a final design. Then they drew it on plywood, learned how to cut and assemble the pieces, decorated and named their creation, and finally tested the boat in the pool.”

One of the boatbuilding workshops on our Providence campus earlier this spring.

Upon hitting the water, Mr. Un was very proud that seven of the eight designs were sea-worthy (or pool-worthy), and the “captains” were able to navigate the course so quickly in one lap – the winning record was 33 seconds. “There’s something about designing a boat that actually floats because there’s always the perception of risk,” shared Mr. Un. “Of course, to mitigate the perceived ‘risk’ [there was no actual risk], we invited Wheeler alum and RISD Architecture and Design student Sofia Castano ’20 to serve as our lifeguard. It was terrific to have Sofia there with us and to hear her validate some of the design challenges we experienced.”

Head of Innovation Young Un and Wheeler alum and RISD Architecture and Design student Sofia Castano ’20 carrying a boat to one side of the pool.


The “S.S. Pretty” on the water.

In reflecting on the experience, Mr. Un was grateful to Chief Operating Officer Ian Moorhouse, Director of Campus Facilities Keith Estey, and the entire 8th-grade team for their collaboration and dedication. “While I facilitated the boatbuilding phase, [Middle School English Teacher and Class Dean] Eric Harrison worked out dozens of logistical challenges,” he explained. “The advisors supported their advisees through the process, lending different skills and points of view. Each boat differed from the others, supporting the grander idea that our kids are unique individuals with diverse ideas.

A pirate and his parrot companion sailing to the finish line.


Students at The Nest, Wheeler’s nature-based early learning center at Wheeler Farm, watching the Floatilla contenders.

“The knowledge our students have gained from their art and science education and the collaborative practices they have honed in all of their classes, came together to create beautiful and functional boats [except for Batman’s boatmobile],” Mr. Un added. “The quality of the overall boatbuilding experience directly reflected the quality of the educational and social experience that Head of Middle School Vanessa O’Driscoll P’27, P’29 and the Middle School team have built. It turned out to be a wonderful and memorable community experience.”

Batman was no match for the Floatilla obstacle course!

The students and their advisors celebrated the conclusion of Floatilla with ice cream sandwiches and popsicles, courtesy of the Wheeler School Parents Association’s (WSPA) 8th-grade representatives.

Mission accomplished, 8th-grade team!

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