Ships 3: Grand Designs and Great Failures

What You Need

Ships 3: Grand Designs and Great Failures


To apply what students have learned in the first two lessons of this series to develop explanations of why two famous historical ships sank on their maiden voyages.


This lesson is the third 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 this lesson 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 the 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.

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.


Review with students what they learned in the first two lessons in this series about basic ship structure (hull, keel, ribs, etc.), load lines, and testing ships in calm and rough waters, fresh and salt water, and, if you did so, cold and warm water.

Ask students what modifications they would make to their designs if they were building the ships now, having completed their initial testing. Tell the class that they will do further online research about two great ship designs that failed tragically on their maiden voyages. One is a familiar example, the Titanic, and the other is a ship they may not have heard about, the Swedish Vasa.

Inform students that the challenge in this lesson is to use what they have learned about ships to determine why these grand designs failed. They should not only think in terms of structure and design, but also in terms of the decisions made by the designers, the builders, and those who sailed these ships.


This activity utilizes Web resources from two countries and from varied historical periods to help students learn about the design and fate of two 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 teams. As you prefer, groups may research both ships suggested on the Grand Designs and Great Failures student esheet or just one of the ships (assigned by you or selected by the group). Ships are included that were used for different purposes—defense and shipping—and from different eras; in both cases, what was seen to be a major advance in design did not prove effective.

Have students access the Grand Designs and Great Failures student esheet. Following the instructions on the esheet and using the links provided (and additional links if you prefer), students will gather information on the design and fate of each ship. There are, of course, numerous documentaries and fictional portrayals of the events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. Use these as desired.


You may assess student understanding by having them provide detailed answers to the research questions on the Grand Designs and Great Failures student sheet.

Fianlly, each team could then prepare a poster describing its findings. Alternately, you may want to lead the class in a discussion of the questions.


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

  • 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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