Draggin' Boats

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Learners design, build, and test models of "dragon boats" made from up to three milk cartons. They observe how well the boats can be pulled through water in a homemade testing tank, and explore how changes in the design affect the boat's motion through water. A series of questions are included to help students explain the features of their designs. The lesson has background information about the history of dragon boats, and vocabulary of different parts of a boat. Extensions include calculation of the average velocity of the boat, marking the waterline of loaded and unloaded boats, and seeing the effect of saltwater on floating.

Quick Guide

  • Preparation Time: 10 to 30 minutes
  • Learning Time: 30 to 45 minutes
  • Estimated materials cost: $5 - $10 per group of students
  • Age Range: Ages 4 - 14
  • Language: English

Materials List (per group of students)

  • School lunch milk cartons
  • Bleach
  • Paper clips or ornament hangers
  • Scissors
  • Waterproof heavy tape (duct, gaffer’s, etc.)
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Wallpaper water tray (long narrow plastic tub for wetting wallpaper available in paint and décor departments or at home builders supply stores)
  • Drinking straw
  • String
  • Small metal weight (nuts & bolts, old keys, etc.)
  • Screwdriver or other pointed instrument
  • Decorations: permanent markers, yarn, googley eyes, paper, Popsicle sticks, sequins, felt, etc. for dragon’s head and flags (optional)
  • Waterproof glue (optional)
  • Stopwatch or watch with a second hand (optional)
  • Meter stick or yardstick (optional)

Informal Categories

  • Model Building
  • Sports and Exercise
  • Transportation


  • Engineering and Technology
    • Engineering
      • Transportation Engineering
    • Technology
      • Transportation
  • Physical Sciences
    • Motion and Forces
      • Momentum and Velocity
    • Structure and Properties of Matter
      • Volume and Density
  • The Nature of Technology
    • The Design Process
      • Problem Solving
Place and Time

To use this activity learners need to

  • see
  • touch

Learning styles supported

  • Involves hands-on or lab activities
Includes alignment to state and/or national standards:

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All Rights Reserved, OMSI, ©2000

Funding sources

  • National Science Foundation, 9053625



Deborah Lee Rose
Dragon Boat Book

To read more about dragon boats, check out the book "Awakening the Dragon: The Dragon Boat Festival" by Arlene Chan (the author is a dragon boat racer).

Deborah Lee Rose
The sport of dragon boat racing

Dragon boat racing is a growing international sport, with dragon boat organizations and racing events in many different locations.

Deborah Lee Rose
Chinese boat science and culture

This activity would be informative and fun in connection with Chinese cultural festivals, particularly the Dragon Boat Festival, or lessons about Chinese history. In addition to designing and building model dragon boats, learners can decorate them (adding a hands-on art/crafts component). The model boats can also be tested, under adult supervision, in other bodies of water such as a bath tub or inexpensive wading pool.