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Paper Ball Run Challenge for Grades 9-12

Summary

Grade Range
9th-12th
Group Size
1-4 students
Active Time
2-3 hours
Total Time
2-3 hours
Area of Science
Physics
Key Concepts
Time, distance, speed, forces, engineering design
Credits
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies
Fluor Challenge 2022

Overview

Add a twist to a classic activity with this fun lesson plan. Your students will design and build a ball run for a ping pong ball using nothing but paper and tape. Their goal is to make the slowest ball run possible. How long can they make it take for the ball to go through their ball run? The 2022 competition is over, but you can see what students built and learn about the winners on the 2022 Fluor Engineering Challenge summary page. Teachers, note that elementary and middle school versions of this lesson plan are also available.

Remote learning adaptation: Students can watch the introductory video and follow the instructions on the Student Worksheet to build and test their ball runs independently at home. If you would like students to work collaboratively, they can share their ideas with each other via video conferencing or shared online documents/photos. /

Learning Objectives

NGSS Alignment

This lesson helps students prepare for these Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations:
This lesson focuses on these aspects of NGSS Three Dimensional Learning:

Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Science & Engineering Practices Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. Plan an investigation or test a design individually and collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence as part of building and revising models, supporting explanations for phenomena, or testing solutions to problems. Consider possible confounding variables or effects and evaluate the investigation's design to ensure variables are controlled.
Disciplinary Core Ideas ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions. When evaluating solutions, it is important to take into account a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, and to consider social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
Crosscutting Concepts Structure and Function. Investigating or designing new systems or structures requires a detailed examination of the properties of different materials, the structures of different components, and connections of components to reveal its function and/or solve a problem.

Materials

different types of paper, tape, and a ping pong ball for materials

If you want to enter your students' designs in the 2022 Fluor Engineering Challenge, you can only use the materials listed below.

Background Information for Teachers

This section contains a quick review for teachers of the science and concepts covered in this lesson.

You might know them by different names: ball run, marble run, ball machine, or rolling ball sculpture. Whatever you call them, these devices start out with at least one ball at the top, and the ball works its way to the bottom as it rolls, bounces, and travels through various features and obstacles (Figure 1).

A large kinetic ball sculpture A large kinetic ball sculpture
Figure 1. Left: a small toy marble run, (Wikimedia Commons user Carl Steinbeißer). Right: a large rolling ball sculpture, Wikimedia Commons user Beyond My Ken. (CC BY-SA 4.0).

This year's Fluor Engineering Challenge is inspired by ball runs like those in Figure 1. As shown in the video, the goal is to build a ball run using only paper and tape, but there's a twist. Your students want to make the ball take as long as possible to make it through the ball run. Figure 2 shows some examples of the types of ball runs your students might build in this project.

A switchback ball run built from paper and tape A 'plinko' style ball run built from paper and tape
A switchback ball run with several obstacles built from paper and tape A ball run with a large funnel built from paper and tape
Figure 2. Several different paper ball run designs.

You can use this project to explore several topics in physics and engineering with your students. Rather than explain each topic in detail, this Background section will give you a brief overview. The links in the Additional Background section provide some more information.

  • Kinematics is the study of motion. How are quantities like distance, time, and velocity related? What do they have to do with the ball's path and how long it takes to travel through the ball run?
  • The ball run uses different forms of energy. The ball has gravitational potential energy when it is placed at the top of the machine. Some of this energy is converted to kinetic energy (the energy of motion) as the ball gains speed. Some of this energy is lost to friction and converted to thermal energy (heat) as the ball moves. When the ball collides or bounces off something, some of the kinetic energy is converted to other forms, like acoustic energy (sound).
  • The ball run might make use of different simple machines, like levers, inclined planes (ramps), or even a wheel and axle. How can your students incorporate different simple machines into the design of their ball runs? How can they slow the ball down?
  • If a student makes a ball run taller, it can take longer for the ball to travel through it. However, building a taller ball run can be difficult. It needs to be sturdy so it does not fall over. For example, students might need to connect beams in triangular shapes to form trusses to support a tall ball run.
  • You can use this project to practice the engineering design process with your students. They will need to design, build, and test their ball runs, and then change them or make improvements, and test again. This process is called iteration.

Prep Work (15 minutes)

Engage (5 minutes)

Explore (1-2 hours)

Reflect (20 minutes)

Assess

Make Career Connections

Lesson Plan Variations

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