What Floats Your Boat?

Students use modeling clay, a material that is denser than water and thus ordinarily sinks in water, to discover the principle of buoyancy. They begin by designing and building boats out of clay that will float in water, and then refine their designs so that their boats will carry as great a load (metal washers) as possible. Building a clay boat to hold as much weight as possible is an engineering design problem. Next, they compare amount of water displaced by a lump of clay that sinks to the amount of water displaced by the same lump of clay when it is shaped so as to float. Determining the masses of the displaced water allows them to arrive at Archimedes' principle, whereby the mass of the displaced water equals the mass of the floating clay boat.