Ships 1: Give Me a Tall Ship

What You Need

Ships 1: Give Me a Tall Ship


To compare the similarities and differences of ancient and modern ships, including size, construction, building materials, and uses.


This lesson is the first in a three-part series on ships. The overall lesson series is designed to allow students to extend their understanding of floating, sinking, density, and buoyancy and apply it to the design and testing of ships.

This series of activities builds on previous simple explorations of floating and sinking (see the 3-5 Science NetLinks lesson Sink It for a related activity) and prepares students for more in-depth examinations of density and buoyancy. In addition, students should have some skill at designing and carrying out a simple experiment.

The activities in these lessons integrate historical and current information from several countries (United States, Great Britain, and Sweden) and utilize the true “world wide” nature of the Internet. They also point out the important relationship between engineering and scientific research. While students learn that most ships are constructed very similarly—whether they are schooners or destroyers—they also learn that ships range widely in size and are built from very different materials, with very different tools, and to serve different purposes.

In Ships 1: Give Me a Tall Ship, student teams develop research and reporting skills as they gather information about a specific type of ship and report it to the class. The class, as a whole, compares and contrasts the different ships, noting similarities and differences among ships from different historical eras and ships built for different purposes. Students use the measurements of the ships (in terms of size, weight, and water displacement) for comparison as well as the ships’ features and overall design. Students gain an appreciation that, although ships today are larger and built with different materials, the basic designs and purposes of ships are similar to those of earlier centuries.

Ships 2: What Floats Your Boat? teaches students about load lines and cargo. Using the information from the ship reports they developed in Ships 1, they note that different types of ships can carry different amounts of cargo. They learn that overloading ships has, historically, been a dangerous practice.

In Ships 3: Grand Designs and Great Failures, students apply what they have learned to develop an explanation of why two real-life ships sank (the British Titanic and the Swedish Vasa). This application of knowledge to real-life situations demonstrates to students that even good designs can fail (the Titanic) and that the solution to one problem often leads to another (the Vasa). It also demonstrates how cultural and contextual conditions can affect both engineering plans and their implementation.


Have students access the Give Me a Tall Ship student esheet and listen to Eva Hart: Titanic Survivor. This audio recording is from 1983 and is about seven minutes long.

As students listen to this recording, they should answer these questions on their Give Me a Tall Ship student sheet:

  • According to Eva Hart, how did her mother describe what she felt when the ship struck the iceberg?
  • What did she and her parents do once they learned what had happened? What were their reactions?
  • Where were the lifeboats located?
  • Eva and her mother got on the lifeboat but her father didn't. Why do you think he didn't?
  • What were Eva's recollections about the sinking of the ship? According to her, how did the ship sink?
  • What ship rescued Eva and her mother?

Tell students that the challenge in this lesson is to learn how different ships from different periods of time are similar and different. The purpose of the overall lesson series is to determine how ships are constructed and what makes them sink.


This section of the lesson utilizes Web resources from several countries and from varied historical periods to help students learn the similarities and differences between ships from different eras. The activity is interdisciplinary, offering opportunities to expand into language arts and social studies through writing extensions and explorations of the culture and historical events in which these ships played a role.

Assign students to small groups and have them continue reading the Give Me a Tall Ship student esheet. As they get to the “Instructions” section, either assign or allow teams to select one of the ships listed in the table. Ships are included that were used for different purposes—defense and shipping—and from different eras.

Following the instructions and using the websites provided on the esheet (and additional sites if you prefer), students will gain information on the dimensions of their ship of interest and its water displacement, how it was built, the building materials used in the ship, and what it was/is used for (e.g., shipping, defense, recreation).

Note: If there is a maritime museum in your geographic area, we encourage you to check its website and contact its education office to determine whether information is available on historical and contemporary ships in your area. These can be incorporated into the activity, as you wish.

As instructed on the esheet, using the information they gather in response to the questions on the Research Data Table student sheet, each team should prepare a poster describing its ship following the outlined criteria.


After each team has presented its findings, lead the class in a discussion of the similarities and differences among these ancient and modern ships. Students should note that the basic structure and shape of all of the ships is similar: each ship has a keel, ribs attached to the keel, and a hull. However, ships in each era have limitations, due to the needs of the time, the testing methods available, and the materials and tools available.

If you’d like, the class may draw scale model paper silhouettes of the ships to compare their sizes or mark the ships’ sizes on a number line.


Complete the second and third lessons in the Ships series:

Take a field trip to a ship-building company, ship restoration project, or local marina. Or ask a local boating or sailing enthusiast to talk to your class.

Additional resources about sinking, floating, and boats can be found in the following selections:

  • The Way Things Work, by David Macaulay, Houghton Mifflin; ISMB 0-395-42857-2; 1988. This book has a good section on boats and submarines.
  • NOVA Online’s Buoyancy Brainteasers has activities and problems to solve on floating and sinking.
  • The Mariners’ Museum website has good overviews of the history of sailing, going as far back as 3200 B.C. Although the website contains few pictures, there are good, easy-to-read narratives.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks

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