Ann Carpenter is the Youth Services Librarian at the Brooks Free Library in Harwch, MA. Among many other programs, she runs a monthly Engineering Challenge for school aged children.
Engineering Challenge: Marble Runs
- Age range:
Around 15-20 school aged kids can participate. More can be accommodated if you have them work in groups. Each group should have at least two pieces of foam.
10 6 foot pipe foam pieces at $1 a piece. You will also need marbles and masking tape, but those are things I had around the library anyway.
We talked about momentum demonstrating that a marble rolled along a mostly flat track will stop, but a marble rolled down an inclined track will keep going, and that marble rolled down a very steep track can build up enough momentum to keep going even uphill. Once they had the general idea, I gave them the first challenge: to build a roller coaster that allowed the marble to go up and over a hill. I purposefully make my first level of challenge relatively simple so that every child participating will have at least one success by the end of the program.
To accomplish their challenge the children were given pipe foam that I had cut in half lengthwise, forming a channeled track. The pipe foam was perfect for our purposes: very flexible for young hands to manipulate and very cheap at about $1 for a 6 ft tube, which provided 2 channels. I also gave them access to lots of tape. Our second level of challenge was to create a loop-the-loop. I told the children who completed the second challenge that they could either do a free design, or they could try for two loop-the-loops. Most chose to try for two loops.
- Difficulties and challenges:
One thing I noticed during this program was that it was not enough for the children to accomplish the task: they needed me to be a witness to their success. This meant running around the room quite a bit so that I could personally watch marbles rolling around the tracks. The looks of delight were definitely worth it. Emphasize that engineering is a process, and they may need to try out their design, then go back and make adjustments based on results.