Recycled Paddle Boat

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Examples of Recycled Paddle Boats

Learning Objective

Steam-powered paddlewheel boats were common on American rivers in the 1800s, but now you’re more likely to see smaller versions paddled by people. Both kinds work the same way, by pushing water with paddles mounted on wheels. Students will build their own boat that uses kinetic energy stored in rubber bands to move.

The final piece is a functional moving boat built with recycled materials and/or found objects. You can extend this project by allowing students to design and 3D print parts of their boat. Think about constraining the amount of 3D printing by weight or material usage in the software. Have them create a budget, and “buy” recyclable materials and 3D printing material.

Estimated Length

4-5 hours class time


For the class:

  • 4-5x* Large plastic tubs for water (clear is best) or 1-2x large plastic kiddie swimming pools

Enough for all students:

  • “Motor materials” (popsicle sticks, plastic cutlery, rubber bands in various sizes & thicknesses)
  •  Hot glue guns & glue
  • Cutting tools (scissors, X-acto knives, box cutters)
  • Various craft supplies (string/twine, glues, tapes, etc.)
  • Various recyclables**

*Depends on class size and space constraints

**Try to procure: plastic bottles, cardboard, Styrofoam, and other materials that can float. Straws and/or chopsticks are also useful.

Overview of Steps

  1. Introduce the project and demonstrate how the paddle and rubber band will function.
  2. Allow students to explore materials.
  3. Students plan their design and create a drawing with labels.
  4. Students build their boats.
  5. Students test out and/or present their boats.
  6. Optional redesign and testing of the boats.

Setup & Planning

  1. If possible, create an example of your own prior to introducing the project. Make the design as simple as possible just showing the function of the rubber band and paddle. If you have access to the outdoors, have a demonstration session where you set off your boat in a stream, puddle, fountain, etc. If this is not possible, you can use a Rubbermaid tub or plastic kiddie pool filled with water.
  2. You can also just create an example of the “motor” assembly for students to test. Refer to the procedure below to learn how to fabricate these. Think about just showing one example and challenge your students to come up with another way to make it!
  3. Collect recyclables! Feel free to collect your own recyclables or follow the instructions under “Procedure” to have your students work on collecting recyclables as an ongoing extension activity.  
  4. Think about setting up your recyclables as a store for older students learning about budgeting. Sort and display your recycled materials (cardboard, cans, paper, plastic, boxes, “found object” etc.) as a store and price each category. Students can be assigned a budget and must come to you or a student volunteer to “buy” their materials. Teach students about pre-planning and you can have them submit a drawing of their boat along with their budget and supply list.
  5. If not setting up the collected recyclables as a “Maker store” as outlined above, sort your materials out by type to make exploration easier. If you don’t have space to store separated recycled materials, think about keeping everything in a large bin. When class is in session, dump the mixed supplies on the floor and you can call it the “local dump”. In this setup, students can use their imaginations and try seeing materials in a different way.


Optional Extension Activity: Recyclable Scavenger Hunt/Makerspace Recycling Program

  • As an optional activity, students can collect, sort, and organize their own Makerspace recycling program! Help students to organize classroom pickup of recyclables as well as sorting and organizing materials. Taking and keeping inventory of the materials can also be a rotating duty. Doing this will supply your Makerspace with endless materials and will also teach your students about reusing and upcycling materials. This can be an ongoing activity or even a club!
  • For a less large-scale activity about recycling, have the students complete a scavenger hunt in groups to get the materials for the activity. Have each group assigned a different category (plastics, cardboard, cans, paper, etc.) and send them out into the school to find materials. For younger students, you can have an aid or parent volunteer escort each group to different classrooms looking for the materials.

Introduction to Students:

Have a discussion about the types of boats and ships. 

  • How many types can students come up with?  Ask them if they know any famous ships and boats (like the Titanic and USS Arizona).
  • It might be interesting to learn about the very first paddle boat.
  • In 1704, French physicist Denis Papin constructed the first ship powered by his steam engine, mechanically linked to paddles. This made him the first to construct a steam-powered boat (or vehicle of any kind).
  • In 1788, using a Watt engine, engineer William Symington launched the first practical steamboat. Her maiden voyage took place on a lake at Dalswinton, Dumfries, on the estate of Patrick Miller, a Scottish merchant.

Tell students that they will be creating paddle boats out of recyclable materials and craft supplies.

Their projects must accomplish these 2 requirements:

  1. The boat must float.
  2. The boat must move on its own with a paddle and “motor” built with recyclable materials.

Show students how the rubber bands will rotate the paddles. 

  1. Place a rubber band around your index finger and thumb. Slide a small piece (about 1.5" square so it does not hit your hand) of cardstock or cardboard (bad materials for actual boat because they dissolve in water) between the rubber bands. You may choose to tape the cardboard or not. Wind up the paddle and let it go. The students should see it rotate. Explain that they will use the same idea for their boats.
  2. Explain that: When you wind up the paddle, the rubber band stores energy. This is potential energy, which occurs because the twisted rubber band is not in equilibrium—you have to hold it in place or it will unwind. When you let go of the paddle, the rubber bands unwind to rotate the paddle and push the boat forward. That unwinding is the conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy, which is the energy of motion. The rubber band moving the paddle and the paddle pushing on the water and the boat moving forward are all examples of kinetic energy.  

Don’t give away too much information!  You want your students to be as creative as possible.

Design Project:

Feel free to structure your class however you like, but refer to the general outline below for guidance:

  1. Material exploration sessions(s)
    • Allow student some time to touch and feel the different materials. This is all they will be tasked with doing during this time. They make take notes on what materials they may be interested in. Also, allow them time to experiment with different taping/gluing techniques to test strength and longevity.
    • It is a good idea to have a container of water out for this so they can test what sinks and floats. Make sure they also test for longevity of water-resistance – a material may seem like it floats until it soaks up enough water to sink!
    • Having a varying selection of rubber bands can cause students to experiment with different choices and ultimately make a choice for the best one for their boat. They can also attach multiple rubber bands.
    • Students should then spend some time drawing a plan, complete with labeling materials they will use. Pre-planning is an important part of the design process and can help give direction and efficiency to your students.
  2. Build session(s)
    • These are the sessions the students will spend building their boats! You can allow as much time for this as you desire.
  3. Design presentation session(s)
    • Students present their designs to the class and talk about the choices they made.
    • Students demonstrate their boat in the water container.
  4. Redesign/challenge session(s)
    • Students can race their boats against each other or partake in any of the extension activities detailed below in the “Tips & Tricks” section.

Tips & Tricks


Here is a basic outline of how to make one type of motor.

  1. A rubber band is attached to 2 sides of the back of the boat. The boat could have 2 features that stick out past the end of the boat for the motor to sit in. Students could also attach 2 paddles on either side of the boat.  This might cause the boat to not move in a straight line, but that is a good learning opportunity.
  2. A rubber band is stretched between the two sides.
  3. An additional piece (paddle) is slid into the rubber band.
    • This additional piece can be made from many things – popsicle stick, wood, plastic spoons, etc. Challenge your students to choose a material they think will work best.
    • This piece can be taped or hot glued into the rubber band assembly.
  4. To make the boat move, you turn the piece along with the rubber band many times to “wind up” the motor. When you let go, the piece spins on its own and can propel the boat!
Here are the basic steps to making a rubber band motor. Note in the 3rd image how the flap of cardboard situated between the popsicle sticks has been wound up by spinning it. When released, the rubber bands will propel the cardboard flap to spin propelling the boat forward. [1]

See this video link for a visual example:


  • Popsicle sticks and wood can be hard to cut for young students. Think about having a station where an assistant or parent volunteer can cut the wood for the students. Have students mark on the wood with a pencil where they want to cut. Maybe they need to “pay” for the cutting service out of their budget?
  • It can be helpful to “score” the popsicle sticks and wood and even plastic cutlery with an X-Acto knife first, and then snap it.
  • If you have a laser cutter, use that to cut the materials!
  • You can also use a larger wire cutter to cut the wood.

Additional Challenges

  • Does your school have a swimming pool? Think about hosting the final presentations in the pool!
  • Think about simulating an ocean/river in the water containers to add an extra challenge. Use small objects as “passengers.”
    • Use a watering can to simulate rain – do the passengers stay dry?
    • Create waves with a fan – do the passengers stay on the boat and no go overboards?
  • Do your students respond to competition and challenges? Challenge the students to see whose boat can go the farthest or have a race! You can delve into aerodynamics and weight to help them optimize their boats for speed and travel.
  • Another challenge is making the boats either go straight ahead to deliberately turn in circles.
  • Have a film/art class? Have students film a boat race! Students can be announcers, competitors, interviewers, and expert consultants. Have the race live for other grade levels to see!

Additional Resources

Interested in more STEAM Project-based Learning resources? TinkRworks K-8 supplemental curriculum makes it simple to add hands-on STEAM education to your school. Learn more:

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