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Ping Pong Pickup Challenge for Grades 9-12


Grade Range
Group Size
1-4 students
Active Time
2-3 hours
Total Time
2-3 hours
Area of Science
Mechanical Engineering
Engineering Challenge
Key Concepts
Simple machines, material properties, engineering design
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies


In this fun engineering lesson plan, your students will build devices from paper, tape, string, and paper clips to pick up and retrieve a ping pong ball. The challenge is to pick up the ball from as far away as possible! Elementary school and middle school versions of this lesson plan are also available. The 2023 competition is over, but you can see what students built and learn about the winners on the 2023 Engineering Challenge summary page.

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
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.


Paper, painter's tape, string, paper clips, and a ping pong balls

For the 2023 Engineering Challenge, students were only allowed to use the materials listed in the table to build their devices.

Material Dimensions/type allowed Maximum quantity Points Cost
Paper Printer, construction, graph, or notebook paper (letter, A4 size, 9"x12" or 22x30 cm sizes are all allowed)

Cardstock and newspaper are not allowed.
30 sheets 5 points per sheet, rounded up to the nearest whole sheet
Paper clips Any size up to 50 mm (2 inch), metal (coated or non-coated) 10 1 point each
String Any type up to 3 mm in diameter (dental floss, fishing line, cotton string, twine, yarn, etc.) 10 meters 1 point per 50 cm (must round up to the closest 50 cm)
Tape Maximum 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide, clear office tape, masking tape, or painter's tape.

Duct tape, packing tape, and electrical tape are not allowed.
One roll Free
Ping pong ball Standard 1 Free - required for testing

They can also use the following tools for building and testing their devices (the tools cannot be part of the device):

Background Information for Teachers

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

You can use devices like the one in Figure 1 to pick up trash, reach things on shelves, or even just grab something from a chair if you are too lazy to get up! They can also save you from touching dirty things with your hands. The devices need to be sturdy enough to reach for things that are far away without bending or breaking, but also light enough that they are easy for people to use. They also need to maintain a firm grip on whatever you are picking up so you do not drop it.

A person picking up a plastic bottle with a trash grabber
Figure 1. A trash grabber picking up a plastic bottle.

The 2023 Engineering Challenge is inspired by devices like the one in Figure 1. The goal is to build a device using nothing but paper, tape, string, and paper clips that can pick up and retrieve a ping pong ball from a distance. The farther away the ball is, and the fewer materials you use to build your device, the higher the score will be.

You can use this challenge to explore several different topics in physics and engineering with your students. How you approach the project is up to you. First, it is a good way to practice the engineering design process. You can also explore simple machines and various mechanisms with your students. They can apply knowledge about material properties like mass, stiffness, and friction, and use that knowledge to make informed decisions about how they build their devices.

Prep Work (15 minutes)

Engage (15 minutes)

Explore (1-2 hours)

Reflect (20 minutes)


Make Career Connections

Lesson Plan Variations

Free science fair projects.