Floating Fish Challenge

“Look! They did it!” someone exclaimed, pointing to the center of the room. All eyes turned to see the blue floating fish hanging in mid-air, beaming its pleased paper smile and beginning its slow drift toward an adjacent table. After appreciative whoops and cheers from fellow teams, the room returned to its previous murmur of bustle, creativity and apparent chaos. Soon the blue fish would be joined by creations from other teams… a purple fish, a yellow fish, and a green fish… all floating and hovering around the classroom.

IMGP0798The Floating Fish Challenge was an activity put together by Tracy Crews and Clair Thomas of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub, and the participants in this case were Mentor Teachers from 10 different school districts. Tucked inside a STEM Hub kickoff day featuring speakers, networking, breakout sessions and planning, this hour was our chance to try out and reflect upon a student STEM activity that could be used in a classroom.

Tracy began the activity by talking about the presence and function of the gas-filled swim bladder structure in fish, which enables a fish to control its buoyancy so that it isn’t constantly having to use energy to swim up or down in the water column. Then she introduced the challenge: Working in a team of 3-4 people and using any of the materials provided in the back of the room, fashion a neutrally-buoyant and well-balanced “fish” out of a helium-filled balloon. That is, teams should design a fish that will hang in mid-air, and neither float to the ceiling as a typical untethered balloon is wont to do, nor fall to the floor under the burden of what has been attached to it. The fish should float right-side-up with its mouth and tail aligned on a horizontal plane, and not tipped to the side in a “dead fish” pose. With the challenge and constraints defined, the 21 participants leaped into action.IMGP0797

Not every team approached the challenge in the same way. Will the whole team get up to peruse and gather materials, or is one person sent to the back of the room while the others work on sketching a design on paper? Whose job is it to hold the balloon? To add paper fins? Who retrieves the balloon from the ceiling? Some groups used the provided diagrams of fish external anatomy in order to create a realistic fish and use scientifically accurate terms for the parts they were designing. How important is the color of the balloon or paper fins?

The room got loud. People were animated. One team engineered a tether to keep its fish-in-progress from floating away, and other teams took note and discussed whether or not to replicate the design at their own tables. Balloons were constantly undergoing testing and modifications. The facilitators joked among themselves that they’d never get the teachers back to where they would all sit quietly again and focus on the front of the room. But of course, they also recognized that the controlled chaos, energy and intrinsic motivation on display are the heart of STEM and authentic student learning experiences.

IMGP0810Soon each table encountered at least some measure of success. And, in fact, the teachers actually did sit back down again to reflect as a group.

“What could you teach with this challenge?” the teachers were asked. Their list of responses was long, and included: density, buoyancy, measurements, volume, planning ahead, teamwork, proportion, persistence, fluids, pressure, animal adaptations, art, taxonomy, collaboration, replication, appreciation for the diversity of possible solutions to a problem, and so on.

“How could you modify this challenge?”

  • Add or remove constraints such as what materials can be used in the design
  • Add a requirement to the challenge, such as assigning each team to create a different species of fish
  • Define/identify roles of team members and compare to how professional teams function
  • Connect this activity to other lessons, such as making an ROV neutrally-buoyant in water

Clair Thomas then explained that the Floating Fish Challenge was developed from an existing activity that he uses in Tillamook called “Neutrally Buoyant Balloon”. It’s a challenge found in one of many kits that he carts around in a trailer to STEM Family Nights and other learning events. Scaled for various age groups, the high school version challenges students to calculate and predict how much to blow up a balloon ONCE, tie it off, and have it hang in the air with out rising or falling. What parameters do you need to know to make that calculation? Once the calculations have been made, the students are invited to test their predictions.

“How is this STEM?”

Throughout the day, the Mentor Teachers, Satellite Coordinators, Lead Partners and other members involved in the the kick off had been working through various definitions and meanings of STEM. The Oregon Coast STEM Hub has been guided by the definition of STEM used by the Oregon Department of Education:

“An approach to teaching and lifelong learning that emphasizes the natural interconnectedness of the four separate STEM disciplines. The connections are made explicit through collaboration between educators resulting in real and appropriate context built into instruction, curriculum, and assessment. The common element of problem solving is emphasized across all STEM disciplines allowing students to discover, explore, and apply critical thinking skills as they learn.”

The keynote speaker for our kickoff, Mark Lewis, STEM Director for the Oregon Education Investment Board, offered another definition:

Applied curiosity: an insatiable desire to know and a drive to create.

Using these definitions, we were definitely able to identify how the Floating Fish Challenge is a STEM activity. The teams were curious, motivated to create their fish, meet the challenge, and learn from their experiences. The project touched on a several disciplines, including the science of fish anatomy and physics, the engineering of solutions to a proposed challenge and the mathematic calculations required to meet that challenge when limited iterations are permitted. And as for the “t” of STEM, I personally got to use technology as I learned through trial and error how to post and share a 6 second video of the Floating Fish activity to the Oregon Coast STEM Hub Facebook page. Watch it here!




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