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        Magnetic Train Engineering Design Challenge

        Students use the engineering design process to create a magnetic train in this lesson plan created by teacher Heather Rizzo.

        For more resources from Teaching Engineering in New York, check out the collection page.

        Lesson Summary

        Time Allotment

        Three 45-minute class periods

        Learning Objectives

        • Students will be able to define and explain the importance of each stage of the engineering design process.
        • Students will work in groups and follow the engineering design process to build a magnetic train.


        -Various objects for construction of trains: examples of these include dowels, tongue depressors, straws, plastic utensils, paper towel or toilet paper rolls, tin foil, aluminum pans, plastic containers, foam sheeting, paper clips, etc.


        -Scissors, tape

        -hot glue gun to be used with teacher supervision

        -track for the trains, you can use a toy track or construct one from paper towel rolls etc.

        Media Resources

        The Engineering Design Process: A Taco Party
        Dinosaur Train | Train Trouble

        Why Are We Here? Ch. 1: Magnetic Levitation | Genius by Stephen Hawking
        Coal Tramway

        Introductory Activity

        Introduce the stages of the engineering design process with The Engineering Design Process: A Taco Party.

        Now transition to the content behind the challenge. Ask: “Who can tell me about potential and kinetic energy?” 

        Potential energy is sometimes called energy at rest. It has a ton of potential… if it can start going. Kinetic energy is usually energy in motion. Who can give me some examples about this?

        Traveling from one place to another has allowed people to share their knowledge and goods throughout the ages. Are we running out of ways to transport people and things or are we able to perfect current designs to make them better by using less fuel and cheaper materials?

        First let’s list some ways to travel. Let’s list ways we can get to and from vacations or trips.  

        What ways deal with traveling across land? Have a student circle land travel options from the class list.

        Next let’s look at a clip about trains. Play Dinosaur Train | Train Trouble from 4:27 – 6:06. Ask: “who can summarize what we just saw? 

        Tell students they are going to create trains using magnets. What do we already know about magnetism? Review a magnetic diagram.

        Distribute pieces of magnets and give students time to play. Wanders and ask question as the students play. After play, instruct students to put the materials down and discuss vocabulary. Revisiting the magnetic diagram, encourage students to mimic the polarities to recreate the diagram and then write down what they think is happening using the vocabulary.

        Learning Activities

        Day One:

        Review the engineering design process. Then, ask students if you were able to design a vehicle, what would it look like? Let’s research car and train designs and see what you can come up with.

        Tell students: “Using your design, your size limitations must be less than 4 inches wide and must fit into your hand.  Your task is to make try to make something that will move with magnets.” 

        Show students the materials available and let them know they also have the use of a hot glue gun with adult supervision. However, they should keep in mind that the mass of each material may either help or hurt them in their task.

        Further instructions:

        • Decide with your partner what you need. 
        • At any point, you may try the track to make sure it helps you. 

        Give the students until the end of the period to construct their designs.

        Day Two:

        Begin with students testing their designs. Then watch Why Are We Here? Ch. 1: Magnetic Levitation | Genius by Stephen Hawking. Discuss how opposing forces of magnets can create motion but do you need more? Guide students to realize that the magnets with the same polarity repel each other, while the magnets with opposite polarity attract. Using ideas of electromagnets and as a whole group, guide students to create an electromagnet using a nail, wire, and a battery. Discuss that while the plates levitated within the video, they were also spinning. This motion was caused by using an electromagnet similar to what we built as a class. 

        Then ask: “How could watching this video help you improve your design?” Give students time to redesign. Play Coal Tramway for further inspiration while redesigning until the end of the period.

        Day Three:

        Students construct and test their redesigns.

        To conclude this session say, “Within the United States, 70 percent of oil is used to provide transportation. This industry costs more than $360 billion a year (when we use data from 2007). While we aren’t the only country that uses cars as a means to transport people from place to place, car emissions do create pollution. Currently there are 850 million cars and trucks traveling on the earth’s highways and it’s projected that by 2020 the global number of automobiles is going to grow to about 1.1 billion. Because it is unlikely that the demand for automobiles will decrease, we need to find ways to make them more efficient and find alternatives to gasoline.

        What ways do you get around? Review the ideas from the introductory activity. Rising oil prices and hiking global temperatures caused by the emission of greenhouse gases are some of the main problems caused, in part, by the world’s use of automobiles. While carpooling, relying on public transportation or simply driving less and walking more could help to solve these problems, they won’t take us far enough. In order to slow the negative effects of the transportation industry, we need to design as engineers. 

        If time allows, add in additional periods where students continue to iterate with an inflated balloon to see how the forward motion or propulsion affects the speed or ability of the vehicle to move.


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