Hands-on Activity: Build an Approximate Scale Model of an Object

Contributed by: Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University

An example of engineering drawings that include a drawing of a bevel gearset.
A professional dimensioned drawing of an object
Copyright © https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engineering_drawing#/media/File:Engineering_drawings_with_Machinery%27s_Handbook.jpg


Students create models of objects of their choice, giving them skills and practice in techniques used by professionals. They make sketches as they build their objects. This activity facilitates a discussion on models and their usefulness.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Modeling is an important step in the engineering process. Before beginning work on a new project, engineers develop models of what they want the product to look like. Models serve as examples both for those involved in development as well as customers.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should learn:

  • What a scale model is and how to construct one
  • The uses for scale models and why they are produced

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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.

  • Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Generate measurement data by measuring lengths using rulers marked with halves and fourths of an inch. Show the data by making a line plot, where the horizontal scale is marked off in appropriate units— whole numbers, halves, or quarters. (Grade 3) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Apply and extend previous understandings of multiplication to multiply a fraction by a whole number. (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The design process is a purposeful method of planning practical solutions to problems. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Requirements for a design include such factors as the desired elements and features of a product or system or the limits that are placed on the design. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The engineering design process involves defining a problem, generating ideas, selecting a solution, testing the solution(s), making the item, evaluating it, and presenting the results. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Models are used to communicate and test design ideas and processes. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Test and evaluate the solutions for the design problem. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Improve the design solutions. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Describe different ways in which a problem can be represented, e.g., sketches, diagrams, graphic organizers, and lists. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Identify relevant design features (e.g., size, shape, weight) for building a prototype of a solution to a given problem. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Possible building materials:

  • LEGO® bricks
  • PopsicleTM sticks
  • pipe cleaners
  • sugar cubes
  • cardboard
  • candy
  • toothpicks
  • tape and glue
  • paper and pencil


Have you ever built or seen a model car or airplane? They look just like real cars and airplanes, only much, much smaller. These are what you call scale models because they are an exact smaller copy of the real object. Scale models are often built as a hobby, but engineers build scale models as part of the engineering design process when designing objects or structures. There are various ways to define the engineering design process, but all involve the following basic steps:

  1. Identify need or problem
  2. Collect information
  3. Brainstorm ideas to fix problem or satisfy need
  5. Test and analyze model
  6. Make improvements on design
  7. Present results

Developing a model (or working prototype) is a crucial step in every definition of the engineering design process. These small-scale models are built to simulate the real larger objects or structures. Experiments are conducted on these prototypes to test how well they work and determine if the design is safe and effective before building the real-sized structure. It is much easier, safer and less expensive to make design corrections on a model rather than the real object.

For example, if an aerospace engineer was in charge of designing a new satellite to orbit Jupiter, she and her team would build a scale model of the satellite and run experiments on the model before building the real satellite. However, if she skipped the design process of building and testing a model and the satellite did not work properly, she would suffer the consequences of wasting millions of dollars of NASA's funding. As an engineer, it is extremely important to understand the significance of creating a scale model.


model: A small but exact copy of something.

scale: The size of a picture, plan, or model of a thing compared to the size of the thing itself.

sketch: A rough drawing representing the chief features of an object or scene.



Recommended Resources:

The Wikipedia entry for "scale model" contains several good links to modeling concepts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scale_model


  • Gather building materials.
  • Obtain or make a scale model of something the students are be familiar with.
  • Have students choose what objects they are going to model. (Tip: You might want to have a few objects for them to pick from; this helps them to choose objects that are not too difficult to accomplish in the time provided.)

With the Students

  1. Explain to students what a scale model is. Show the class an example and discuss with the students why they think that engineers would need to make models before making the real things.
  2. Have students work alone or in pairs to build scale models using the building materials provided. Have teams sketch their objects before building them, and modify the models, as necessary. as they progress.
  3. You may choose to have students build something specific, or with a common theme, or have it be open-ended. An easy criterion is to have students build something that is in the classroom, that way, a variety of objects are available and in front of them. Students could also bring objects in from home.


Investigating Questions

  • What is a scale model?
  • How can you depict an object without the actual object?
  • Why are scale models useful?
  • Where are they used?
  • What did you build?
  • How did you build it?
  • What is its function(s)?
  • What other material would you use for the life-size version?


Grading Rubric: Evaluate student models based on the criteria in the attached rubric, including design planning, construction craftsmanship, accurate sketches with proportional dimensions, and demonstrated understanding of the purposes for and value of scale models.

Scaling their Models: Have students measure the height of their models using a ruler. Then ask students how their measurements will change if the models were two, five and ten times bigger.


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2004 Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Supporting Program

Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University

Last modified: November 30, 2017