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Volleyball Machine Challenge for Middle School


Grade Range
Group Size
2-4 students
Active Time
2-3 hours
Total Time
2-3 hours
Area of Science
Engineering Challenge
Key Concepts
Engineering design
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies

This engineering challenge is based on an internal competition designed by employees at Fluor Corporation.


Teach your students about the engineering design process with this fun lesson plan. They will design and build two "volleyball machines" that launch a ping pong ball back and forth over a net. While the 2019 Engineering Challenge is over, your students can still try this project and compare their scores to top scores from around the world! Teachers, note that elementary school and high school versions of this lesson plan are also available.

Looking for this year's challenge? Check out our main Engineering Challenge page for all the latest information, including a chance to win a cash prize for your school or nonprofit!

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
Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions. Undertake a design project, engaging in the design cycle, to construct and/or implement a solution that meets specific design criteria and constraints.

Optimize performance of a design by prioritizing criteria, making tradeoffs, testing, revising, and retesting.
Disciplinary Core Ideas
ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions. A solution needs to be tested, and then modified on the basis of the test results, in order to improve it.

There are systematic processes for evaluating solutions with respect to how well they meet the criteria and constraints of a problem.

ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution. The iterative process of testing the most promising solutions and modifying what is proposed on the basis of the test results leads to greater refinement and ultimately to an optimal solution.
Crosscutting Concepts
Structure and Function. Structures can be designed to serve particular functions by taking into account properties of different materials, and how materials can be shaped and used.

Systems and System Models. Systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems.


House hold items to create a volleyball machine

Construction Materials
Item Maximum Quantity Point cost (each)
Corrugated cardboard (max size 12"x12" or 30x30 cm) 2 10
Large paper or plastic cups (16–18 oz, or about 450–500 mL) 10 5
Wooden craft sticks (4 ½" or 11.5 cm) 20 1
Paper (printer/copier paper, not construction paper or cardstock; letter or A4 size) 20 1
Wooden pencils (circular or hexagonal cross-section, approx. 7–8" or 18–20 cm length) 20 1
Rubber bands (size 32, 3" long unstretched and 1/8" wide) 10 2
Roll of clear adhesive tape (Scotch® tape or equivalent, 1/2" or 3/4" width, max length 500") 1 10
Tools and Testing Materials (no point cost)
Paper and pencilFor sketching design ideas
Scissors For cutting construction materials
Sheets of paper (2) For making net
Tape For holding net to floor/table
Ruler For checking net dimensions
Ping pong ball  
Table 1. Materials allowed for building a volleyball machine for the 2019 Engineering Challenge.

Note: material costs are not pro-rated. For example, if you use any tape, it still costs the entire 10 points, even if you do not use the whole roll.

Background Information for Teachers

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

In this lesson, your students will use readily available craft/office supplies to build two machines that can launch a ball back and forth over a net, similar to the game of volleyball (although in this case, the machines are allowed to catch the ball). The 2019 Engineering Challenge had specific rules and limits on what materials students could use. You can choose to follow the same rules, or just use this lesson as an inspiration. If you have not already, watch this video for an introduction to the challenge.

This challenge allows you to explore some interesting topics in physics and engineering. Rather than explain these topics in detail, this background section will give you a brief overview of each one, and you can decide which, if any, to address with your students. There is more information about these topics in the Additional Background section.

  • Simple machines: use the project to learn about simple machines like the lever and the inclined plane. How can simple machines be combined to form a more complex machine that can launch a ball?
  • Projectile motion is a classic topic in physics classes. How do the initial velocity and launch angle of the ball affect its range? What trajectory (i.e. a high, steep trajectory or a low, shallow trajectory) makes it easier to catch the ball?
  • Energy is another classic physics topic. The ball needs kinetic energy, the energy of motion, to fly through the air. Where will that energy come from? It could come from elastic potential energy, the energy stored in a stretched material, like a rubber band. It could come from gravitational potential energy, the energy stored in an object that is raised up off the ground. Or, the energy could come from work that you do with your hand by exerting a force.
  • Engineering design: you can also use this project to walk your students through the engineering design process. They probably will not build a perfect machine on their first try. Instead, they will need to iteratively test and redesign their launcher/receiver in order to improve the design.

Prep Work (10 minutes)

Engage (5 minutes)

Explore (90 minutes)

Reflect (30 minutes)


Make Career Connections

Lesson Plan Variations

Free science fair projects.