Car Challenge

By Marisa Ledet, February 27, 2017

Grade Level

  • High School


  • Summer Design Institute

Subject Area

  • Science

Lesson Time

Approximately 2 weeks


An amusement park needs to meet the needs of two different kinds of customers. One group of customers, requires a fast and thrilling ride down to the bottom of a ledge. The second group of customers would prefer to take their time down the ledge, so they can see all of the scenery as they move down the ramp. The designer does not want the ramp to stop at any point, because they do not want the customers to think that the ride is broken.

National Standards

Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening Comprehension and Collaboration: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. Anchor Standards for Language: Conventions of Standard English: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking. Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate. English Language Arts Standard for Science and Technical Subjects Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem. Next Generation Science Standards HS-PS2-1. Analyze data to support the claim that Newton’s second law of motion describes the mathematical relationship among the net force on a macroscopic object, its mass, and its acceleration. HS-PS3-1 Create a computational model to calculate the change in the energy of one component in a system when the change in energy of the other component(s) and energy flows in and out of the system are known. HS-PS3-2. Develop and use models to illustrate that energy at the macroscopic scale can be accounted for as a combination of energy associated with the motions of particles (objects) and energy associated with the relative positions of particles (objects). HS-PS3-3. Design, build, and refine a device that works within given constraints to convert one form of energy into another form of energy.


Construct a fun car for passengers. Construct a slower car for taking in the sites. Understand how Newtonian Mechanics can be used to predict the motion of the cars down the ramp, and how the car can be designed to achieve different outcomes.



Car kits Hand saws Sandpaper Files Scroll saw Drill-press


Drag Force – The force due to the air that opposes the motion of the car. It is proportional to the velocity of the car Acceleration – the change of velocity of an object Velocity – speed and direction of an object Normal force – force that is perpendicular to the surface of the ramp Gravitational force – Force of attraction between Earth an object at surface Gravitational Potential Energy – Energy associated with the position of a mass in a gravitational field Kinetic energy – The energy of movement Rotational Kinetic energy – the energy of rotational motion Friction – The force that acts on two surfaces in contact, while sliding, or trying to slide.


After an introduction kinematics, Newton’s Laws, and conservation of energy, and to the design principles of a “ready-set-design” challenge, the students are presented with the car challenge. In groups of 2 or 3, students must decide if they want to participate in the fast car challenge, or the slow car challenge. Students will be given 2-3 days to brainstorm at least 100 ideas as to how they want their car to be designed. Some guiding questions an instructor can use during the brainstorming session may include the following: 1. Should the car be heavy or light? 2. If the car should be heavy, where should the weight be placed on the car, and why? 2. What aspects would increase/decrease air resistance? 3. Should all four wheels touch the track? 4. Should the wheels turn in or out? All car starting kits will be the same block of balsa wood and given wheels. Tell students to select the ideas that they want to include in the final design of the car, and have them present their ideas to the instructor. Students should then create a blueprint of their design before any cutting of the wood is made. The blueprint could be hand-drawn on paper, or it could be created in a CAD program, if a student has familiarity with one. Instruct a few students on how to use the wood-working tools, and have them help the group, with the goal of each person using each tool at least once. For the race day, students in 11th/12th grade physics will compete against 8th and 5th grade classes, in the appropriate category. An overall winner among the three levels of physics and physics science will be decided. After the competition, all students will need to make a presentation to their classmates about the design ideas used for their individual cars, why they chose those ideas, and how well they worked in the challenge. Students should be sure to include the relevant physics concepts that apply to their specific cars. Students will need to critique their own designs and discuss what worked, what didn’t work, and what, if anything specific, they would change in the future.


The assessment for this activity is a power point presentation that addresses all concepts of kinematics, dynamics and the conservation of energy, as they apply to their specific car. This should be completed after the race. Students should also include the reasons why their car was superior, or less than optimal for their design challenge, as compared to other cars in the challenge.

Enrichment Extension Activities

An extension to this activity would be to get the art department involved in ranking good aesthetic design decisions while also using sound physics principals.

Teacher Reflection

Because this physics challenge uses physics principals for a competition across divisions, other design products could be used to achieve similar goals. Catapults could be designed, or cars that go fast down the hill yet project sensitive cargo when crashing with a wall.

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