Hands-on Activity: Design a Bicycle Helmet

Contributed by: Making the Connection, Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network (WEPAN)

Quick Look

Grade Level: 9 (9-10)

Time Required: 1 hours 30 minutes

(Part 1: 45 minutes; Part 2: 50 minutes)

Expendable Cost/Group: US $0.70

This activity also requires some non-expendable items; see the Materials List for details.

Group Size: 4

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Science and Technology

Photo shows three young children wearing helmets.
Engineers are involved in designing safety gear.
Copyright © Microsoft Corporation, 1981-2004.


Students are introduced to the biomechanical characteristics of helmets, and are challenged to incorporate them into designs for helmets used for various applications. By doing this, they come to understand the role of engineering associated with safety products. The use of bicycle helmets helps to protect the brain and neck in the event of a crash. To do this effectively, helmets must have some sort of crushable material to absorb the collision forces and a strap system to make sure the protection stays in place. The exact design of a helmet depends on the needs and specifications of the user.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Safety engineers design products with a specific user in mind. It is important that engineers fully understand the needs and specifications of the user to produce a functional product. If the product is interacts with the body, the engineers must have an understanding of biomechanics, which is the application of the principles of physics to the body.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Analyze a product to determine the need it was designed to meet and the customer it was meant to attract.
  • Produce, use, and evaluate a prototype of the design solution.
  • Describe the personal impact of the designed product.
  • Communicate the solution to a problem and justify decisions.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts. (Grades 9 - 12)

Do you agree with this alignment?

This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.

Alignment agreement:

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.

Alignment agreement:

New technologies can have deep impacts on society and the environment, including some that were not anticipated. Analysis of costs and benefits is a critical aspect of decisions about technology.

Alignment agreement:

View other curriculum aligned to this performance expectation
NGSS Performance Expectation

HS-ETS1-2. Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering. (Grades 9 - 12)

Do you agree with this alignment?

This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Design a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.

Alignment agreement:

Criteria may need to be broken down into simpler ones that can be approached systematically, and decisions about the priority of certain criteria over others (trade-offs) may be needed.

Alignment agreement:

View other curriculum aligned to this performance expectation
  • Troubleshoot, analyze, and maintain systems to ensure safe and proper function and precision. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Demonstrate methods of representing solutions to a design problem, e.g., sketches, orthographic projections, multiview drawings. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

  • oak tag or poster board (approx. 20 x 30 in)
  • markers, colored pencils, etc.

To share with the entire class:

  • 2 or more example helmets
  • EPS (expanded polystyrene) or Styrofoam (approx. 10 in2)
  • PET (polyester terephthalate, such as cutting the plastic from a 2-liter soda bottle to lay flat)
  • 5-pound weight
  • scissors
  • masking tape

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/bicycle_helmet_activity] to print or download.

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Two photos show a girl riding a mountain bike on a sandstone rock surface, and two boys on BMX bikes high-fiving as they fly through the air over a jump. All are wearing helmets.
Copyright © Microsoft Corporation, 1981-2004.

Engineers use scientific principles and other background information to design and create useful things that we use and depend upon every day. In designing and creating, the engineer goes through a problem solving process in which math and science are important components. (As necessary, review the steps of the engineering design process, an approach all engineers have in common as work to create great design solutions.)

Each year, nearly 1,000 people die from injuries sustained in bicycle crashes, with head injuries accounting for more than 60% of these deaths. In addition, many more people survive non-fatal head injuries resulting from bicycle crashes. While some of these survivors may experience only minor headaches or dizziness, others may suffer profound and disabling neurological difficulties.

One effective way to prevent head injury from these accidents is to use bicycle helmets. What do you think would be important characteristics for a helmet to have? (Listen to student ideas.) Helmets generally consist of two parts: an impact protection system to absorb the force and a strap system to keep the protective layer in place.

Often three layers are used together to provide impact protection. The outer layer is generally a hard shell or a micro-shell made of fiberglass, Lexan or ABS plastic. This shell serves many purposes: it distributes the force of the collision over a large area; it allows the helmet to slide, thereby causing a slower deceleration; it provides a shield against penetration; and it holds the middle layer together. The middle layer is usually a crushable liner that absorbs the shock of collision. This layer is often made of expanded polystyrene, also known as EPS. The inner layer, which may be more segmented, helps to ensure proper fit and comfort.

How do you think engineers might be involved in safety helmets? (Listen to student ideas.) Well engineers are involved in all aspects of helmet design and manufacturing. That includes, design, development, research, production and sales.


Before the Activity

  • Gather materials and make copies of the worksheets and score sheets.
  • Prepare to show students the attached Bicycle Helmet Design Slides, either via overhead transparencies or a PowerPoint presentation.

With the Students

Part 1

  1. Review slides 1-7: People who design and manufacture bicycle helmets must know how to make a helmet protective, functional and marketable at the same time.
  2. In groups, consider the following: all helmets contain the same basic parts to protect the head in an accident. However, helmets are not all alike. They may differ depending on who will use them and for what purpose.
  3. Determine the purpose of a bicycle helmet.
  4. Pass around the bicycle helmets so that the students can identify the parts. Have students note the sticker from the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) that shows that the helmet meets a safety standard, or the blue SNELL sticker indicating that the helmet has passed more stringent tests.
  5. Describe the parts of the helmet and discuss the purpose of each part.
    • hard and slick shell
    • crushable liner
    • padding layer
    • strap system
    • vents
  1. To reinforce the purpose of the hard shell, conduct the following experiment:
    • From shoulder height, drop the 5-pound weight onto a piece of EPS.
    • Pass the EPS around the class and have students note the deformation.
    • Tape the flat plastic piece onto the EPS.
    • Drop the weight from shoulder height onto the combination of EPS and PET.
    • Pass the combination around the class and have the students note the deformation.
  1. Think about the helmet characteristics that are designed for a certain application. By adding these characteristics to the basic helmet, the proper design can be determined for an application. Review slides 8-11.
  2. Pass out Worksheet A: Helmet Design Project (2 pages) and assign each group one of the design challenges.
  3. Have students brainstorm ideas and complete the worksheet.

Part 2

  1. Have students prepare a two-minute poster presentation on their designs. Require the posters to include the helmet designs and that students be prepared to discuss the choices they made.
  2. Finish with a discussion about how students approached the problem like engineers. At each stage of the project, what engineering role were they performing?


biomechanical: Refers to the study of the human body from the mechanical engineering perspective.

crushable: Able to compress rather than shatter or crack when a force is applied.

expanded polystyrene : (EPS) A rigid, famed plastic that can be used for its insulating or protective properties.

polyester terephthalate: (PET) A hard, thin plastic with high strength and rigidity.


Evaluation: Use the attached score sheet to evaluate each group, judging on criteria such as problem statement, group needs, design changes, marketing techniques, illustration and overall presentation.

Investigating Questions

  • How would you test bicycle helmets to make sure that they are safe?
  • After an accident would you need a new helmet?
  • How can a consumer tell if a helmet is safe?

Safety Issues

  • Make sure the presenters are careful when dropping weights onto the test materials.

Activity Extensions

Have students research other types of foam that have been used in helmets, such as expanded polyurethane and expanded polypropylene.

Have students research helmets that are designed for specific applications. Decide if the classroom designs are similar to the commercial product. Check websites on bicycle safety to see if specially made helmets exist for these applications.

Some people feel that wearing helmets makes riders more reckless and more prone to injury. Have students poll other students to see if this is the case. Collect enough data to be able to see if gender plays a part in the findings.

Activity Scaling

  • For upper grades, have students design their own experiments to test bicycle helmets for impact resistance and strap strength. Obtain used or low-priced helmets for this activity.

Additional Multimedia Support

Snell/Harborview Studies: http://www.smf.org/docs/articles/report.html

Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute: http://www.helmets.org/


Martha Cyr; K. M. Samuelson; D. Schweitzer; G. Hase


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2001 WEPAN/Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Supporting Program

Making the Connection, Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network (WEPAN)


Project funded by Lucent Technologies Foundation.

Last modified: June 5, 2018


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