About 100 Gilbert Intermediate School fourth-graders came Friday to Iowa State University to see if the boats they designed using new software would float across the Forker Building pool carrying freight. Photo by Lynn Campbell.

Fourth-graders design boats as part of STEM lesson from Iowa State

About 100 Gilbert Intermediate School fourth-graders came Friday to Iowa State University to see if the boats they designed using new software would float across the Forker Building pool carrying freight.

They made the boats out of foam, plastic, and wood using the math and science concepts, engineering design processes, and technologies they learned about over the past 4 ½ weeks from Christa Jackson and Mollie Appelgate, two assistant professors in the School of Education.

It’s all part of an ongoing effort to improve the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in elementary schools. The students’ objective: To move the most load from one side of the pool to the other in a specified amount of time.forker-website5

“The students were given a design challenge to complete as a team,” Jackson said. “A company has hired you to carry some freight from Michigan to Canada, but the company needs you to ship the freight as efficiently as possible. Your team’s quest is to design a boat that will safely carry the cargo in an efficient amount of time.”

The “freight” came in the form of ramen noodles, tomato paste, red beans, and chicken noodle soup. The students jumped, screamed, and cheered as the boats they designed — some carrying as much as 48 ounces — floated across six lanes of the pool in as little as 13 seconds.  

Based on state and national standards

forker-website3Iowa State’s work with Gilbert Intermediate School students came as part of a $149,740 small business investigative research grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to Parametric Studio, Inc., a startup company in the ISU Research Park that develops and sells K-12 STEM educational game software.

“These are fairly prestigious awards that are difficult to get,” said Chris Whitmer, the chief technology officer at Parametric. “The grant was for Parametric to develop and commercialize an engineering education software platform for elementary schools.”

Jackson and Appelgate served as subcontractors who wrote the curriculum for the fourth-graders based on the state’s Iowa Core mathematics standards and the new national Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 students, which incorporate engineering and aim to provide all students with an internationally-benchmarked science education.

Whitmer designed the gamified software used in tandem with the curriculum. The software is called DESCARTES, or Design environment for Educator-Student Collaboration Allowing Real-Time Engineering-centric STEM. It’s an online game and simulation platform for design-to-build engineering projects for students in grades 4 to 7.

The team then went to Gilbert Intermediate School every day for 4 ½ weeks to work with students in Tami Goodhue’s and Kathy Hammer’s fourth-grade classes. They focused on the transdisciplinary aspects of STEM where science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are interwoven.

“We thought we were called guinea pigs, but it’s really called beta testing,” Goodhue said. “Truly, the kids have given input and they have gone in the middle of the night, changing things about the program based on our students’ recommendations. When this program is truly launched, it will be based on the input from 10-year-olds who I guarantee you will someday be engineers. This is just driving up the excitement.”

Getting kids excited about engineeringforker-website6

The project got the fourth-graders excited about engineering.

“This isn’t just about arts and crafts,” Goodhue said. “It really is putting all this data and information together and it’s been really exciting.”

While Gilbert Intermediate School already includes engineering activities in its curriculum, the collaboration with Iowa State allowed the fourth-graders to have access to software they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“That link together is what made it really amazing that they could do it in the software program, and then build it with their hands,” Goodhue said. “They’re feeding off the energy of the fourth-graders, and the fourth-graders are feeding off of them. We’re going to miss them. They come into our classroom every day. We’re just a big team and it’s been amazing.”

Designing gamified software

Game-based learning is an increasingly popular and effective way to increase STEM engagement among students.  

DESCARTES supports teachers to successfully integrate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in their instruction. It also provides teachers with formative feedback about how their students are conceptualizing and using the engineering design process.


The prototype includes a virtual workspace for students to create and test their models. Students applied their learning to design a boat using engineering principles, and the prototype incorporated a 3-D printer to create a physical representation of a simulated model.

“While we are developing the software, technical instruction, and design challenges, Iowa State University developed a curriculum that is being used to test the phase one prototype of DESCARTES in the classroom,” Whitmer said.

Iowa State is also conducting a month-long education study to demonstrate the effectiveness of DESCARTES,” he said. “In this month-long study, students have been using our software in STEM instruction to learn and apply engineering design to boats. Friday at the pool, they tested the boats they created with DESCARTES.”

Parametric plans to apply for a phase two award to expand DESCARTES with a larger-scale test. The company plans to again work with Iowa State to test the software and integrate it with the curriculum.

When DESCARTES is complete, it will join Parametric’s other STEM software called DAVinCI Flight, a STEM-oriented educational game that allows high school students to model and fly gliders in a game-based, virtual 3-D environment.