Hands-on Activity: Ding! Going Up? Elevators and Engineering

Contributed by: AMPS GK-12 Program, Polytechnic Institute of New York University

Two photos. View of an eight-story building shows two side-by-side glass-enclosed elevator shafts, exposing their cables. A schematic view of geared traction elevator system—an elevator and its shaft, with components labeled: control system, geared machine (hoisting sheave), motor, governor, equipment restraints, elevator machine room, hoisting ropes (connect cab to counterweights) cab roller guides, door operator, elevator guiderail, car safety device, traveling cable, counterweight roller guides, counterweight (to prevent weights from falling), counterweight guiderail), compensation ropes, shaft doors, governor tension sheave, counterweight buffer and car buffer.
An example elevator in Portland, OR (left). A diagram of an elevator and its components (right).
Copyright © 2012 Another Believer, Wikimedia Commons (left), Federal Emergency Management Agency (right) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montgomery_Park,_Portland,_OR_2012_-_elevators.JPG http://www.fema.gov/earthquake/fema-e-74-reducing-risks-nonstructural-earthquake-damage-34


Students create model elevator carriages and calibrate them, similar to the work of design and quality control engineers. Students use measurements from rotary encoders to recreate the task of calibrating elevators for a high-rise building. They translate the rotations from an encoder to correspond to the heights of different floors in a hypothetical multi-story building. Students also determine the accuracy of their model elevators in getting passengers to their correct destinations.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers who design convenient transportation equipment for daily use by thousands of people must also ensure the public's safety. The widespread use of escalators, moving walkways and elevators in buildings, airports and skyscrapers has created the demand for machines that operate effectively, accurately and dependably under high-traffic flow. Engineers devise many control theories and devices to guarantee people get to their destinations safely and timely.

Pre-Req Knowledge

Familiarity with the following terms: circumference, diameter, angle, degree, unit conversion, graphing experimental data points and linear vs. non-linear equations. Knowledge of rotary encoders, as presented in the Rotary Encoders and Human Computer Interactions activity.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Identify the control device used in elevators, escalators and moving walkways.
  • Explain how engineers use these control devices to guarantee that people arrive safely at their destinations.
  • Define and explain calibration, control devices and rotary encoders.

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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.

  • 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) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Know the formulas for the area and circumference of a circle and use them to solve problems; give an informal derivation of the relationship between the circumference and area of a circle. (Grade 7) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Understand and apply theorems about circles (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Visualize relationships between two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Understand that the graph of an equation in two variables is the set of all its solutions plotted in the coordinate plane, often forming a curve (which could be a line). (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Represent data on two quantitative variables on a scatter plot, and describe how the variables are related. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve simple rational and radical equations in one variable, and give examples showing how extraneous solutions may arise. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Use units as a way to understand problems and to guide the solution of multi-step problems; choose and interpret units consistently in formulas; choose and interpret the scale and the origin in graphs and data displays. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The decision whether to develop a technology is influenced by societal opinions and demands, in addition to corporate cultures. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The design process includes defining a problem, brainstorming, researching and generating ideas, identifying criteria and specifying constraints, exploring possibilities, selecting an approach, developing a design proposal, making a model or prototype, testing and evaluating the design using specifications, refining the design, creating or making it, and communicating processes and results. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Give an informal argument for the formulas for the circumference of a circle, area of a circle, volume of a cylinder, pyramid, and cone. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • 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) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Photo shows the heads sides of four U.S. coins: nickel, penny, dime and quarter.
Elevator test passengers: Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Washington.
Copyright © 2013 Denise W. Carlson, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Each group needs:

Note: This activity can also be conducted with the older (and no longer sold) LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT set instead of EV3; see below for those supplies:

  • LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT robot, such as the NXT Base Set

To share with the entire class:


You have just been hired as an engineering contractor to help build public transport equipment for your city's highest skyscraper! You will build an elevator and, with your knowledge of rotary encoders, make sure that it safely and effectively delivers the public to their destinations in the skyscraper.

To complete the job successfully, your elevator must meet the following conditions:

  • The elevator box must be designed to safely carry a few passengers, namely, Washington, Roosevelt, Jefferson and Lincoln (show students the 41 cents in coins: quarter, dime, nickel and penny).
  • The elevator box must be securely attached to the elevator cable. Safety is paramount.
  • The cable must be connected to a servo motor.
  • The elevator must be able to travel up to at least five different floors. Each floor is six inches high.
  • Each floor must be calibrated using the rotary encoder.
  • When in use with the servo motor, the accuracy of the top floor height must be within 5% of the total building height.
  • The passengers' safety will be verified when they reach the top of the building.
    A photograph shows an elevator box, made of paper with two drawn passengers that is suspended by string (labeled as "cable") that wraps around a pulley with a motor. A LEGO intelligent brick is attached to the motor and pulley, and rests on a surface just below the pulley.
    Example LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 elevator model.
    Copyright © 2017 University of Colorado Boulder


calibration: The process of standardizing or precisely adjusting a measure or tool.

electromechanics: A device or system that combines electrical and mechanical processes.

rotary encoder: An electromechanical control device that converts angular motion to a translation.

translation: Movement of a point at a constant distance in a specified direction.


Time Note

Plan on the following segments of time for the 55-minute activity:

  • 10 minutes to learn about the application of rotary encoder in elevators.
  • 15 minutes to build the elevator with LEGO parts.
  • 20 minutes to predict and collect data on the elevator "floors."
  • 10 minutes to perform calculations and graph measurements.

Before the Activity

With the Students

  1. Divide the class into groups of four students each and in each team assign two to work on the LEGO motor assembly (using the Elevator Building Guide) and two to work on the elevator box assembly.
  2. Hand out the worksheets to guide students through the activity. You may want to list the engineering project requirements on the classroom board (as listed in the Introduction/Motivation section).
  3. An elevator motor uses the mathematical relation between circumference and diameter to figure out how much to pull the elevator cable to get the passenger box to the correct height. If an elevator motor rotates once, the cable pulls on the elevator box vertically upwards the same amount as the circumference of the pulley.
  4. Consider, if we have a pulley diameter of 2 inches, what is the circumference of the pulley? (Answer: 2π inches or 6.28 inches.) If a "floor" is 6 inches high, how many rotations do we need? (Answer: 6.26 inches / 6 inches = 1.05 rotations) Have students follow the steps to predict the angular rotations necessary to arrive at each floor. See Figure 1 for the calculation setup. Have students write their predictions on the worksheet.
    A diagram shows a curved arrow that points in the clockwise direction, surrounded by a circle. To its right, a straight line with an arrow points to the right, corresponding to the same rotational distance shown by the arrow in the circle. Above the straight arrow it says C=πD (circumference equals pi times diameter). Two setups for calculations of the number of degrees and the number of rotations required to lift the elevator one floor are provided: 1 floor is equal to 6 inches times 360 degrees divided by circumference, which equals the number of degrees. The number of degrees times 1 rotation divided by 360 degrees is equal to the number of rotations.
    Calculations for predicting the number of rotations of the pulley to lift the elevator one floor.
    Copyright © 2013 Paul Phamduy, Polytechnic Institute of NYU
  5. For the activity, distribute to each team a LEGO kit, calculator, measuring tape, extra paper, masking tape and string.
  6. Have groups design and assemble their LEGO motor assemblies (using the Elevator Building Guide) and elevator box assemblies using the LEGO kits and other materials. Have them record on their worksheets the height, length and width of their elevator boxes as well as the method used to attach the elevator boxes to the cable string.
  7. To prepare for calibration, have students align the prepared Floor Ruler, starting at the floor of the classroom, next to the elevator (see Figure 2).
    Four photos. 1) The paper elevator box rests on the floor with a string attached at its top. Next to the elevator is the bottom of the Floor Ruler, with the arrow for Floor 1 in line with the floor. 2) The top of the experimental setup shows a LEGO intelligent brick with a pulley and motor at the edge of a table top. The string from the pulley is the same string attached to the top of the paper elevator box. Next to the pulley on the surface is the top of the Floor Ruler. 3) The paper elevator box hangs by its string cable next to Floor 2 marked on the Floor Ruler. 4) The LEGO brick display window shows the total angular rotation of the pulley.
    Figure 2. Instructions for calibration of the LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 elevator.
    Copyright © 2017 University of Colorado Boulder
  8. Have students use the servomotor tool function on the LEGO intelligent brick, see Figure 3. To do this, press the middle button to turn on the brick > use the left/right gray arrow buttons to go to "View" > press the middle button > go to "motor controller" in degrees > middle button > "Port A" > middle button. By turning the servomotor, students see that the angle value on the LEGO brick changes.
    Six photos show the five steps that need to be taken using the orange and grey arrow buttons on the LEGO brick: 1) home screen, 2) view option, 3) select the motor encoder tool in degrees, 4) select servomotor on Port A. 5) angle of servomotor.
    Figure 3. Instructions for viewing the servomotor tool.
    Copyright © 2017 University of Colorado Boulder
  9. Students begin by unwinding their elevators so that the elevator boxes touch the floor. Have them record the floor number, elevator height from the ground using a measuring tape, and number of degrees on the LEGO screen to reach the height.
  10. Have students rotate the servomotor by turning the handle on their devices so that the elevator reaches the next floor. Figure 4 shows the two gray arrow buttons used to control the servomotor. Repeat step 9 for all floors.
    Photo shows a LEGO hand-held plastic device with a display window connected to a servomotor, a smaller box-shaped plastic device. Two gray triangular-shaped buttons are identified with arrows as "1." The servomotor is identified with an arrow as "2."
    Figure 4. Using the provided program, students can specify rotations controlling the height of the elevator using the gray buttons (1) on the EV3 intelligent brick to control the servomotor (2).
    Copyright © 2017 University of Colorado Boulder
  11. Students calculate percent different by using the equation: "percent difference" = ("degrees to get to floor"/"actual degree to get to floor" – 1) X 100.
  12. Have students graph the calibration data with rotations on the x-axis and floor height on the y-axis.
  13. Ask students to comment on whether this is a non-linear or linear relationship between rotations and floor height.
  14. Have students reset the elevator box on the ground floor and run the elevator.c program.
  15. Next, have students put their four passengers (coin weights), Washington, Roosevelt, Jefferson and Lincoln, onto their elevators.
  16. Students enter in their rotations for the top floor, press the button, and watch the elevator box reach the top floor.
  17. Students measure and record the height of the top floor and calculate its accuracy. Students comment on the safety of their passengers.
  18. Conclude the activity with each team presenting their results to the class with an analysis of their graphs. How well did they meet the engineering project requirements?
  19. Together as a class, answer some discussion questions.
  • How does the rotation of the elevator motor translate to the vertical motion of the elevator box? (Answer: circumference = pi * diameter)
  • How does the rotary encoder know that the elevator box has reached the correct floor in a building? (Answer: Each floor should be calibrated to a specific degrees or rotations by encoder.)
  • Did your passenger make it to the top floor safely? (Answers will vary.)
  • How safe do you think elevators should be? What are acceptable risks and casualties? (Answer: Answers will vary. The chance of an elevator fatality in a year is 1 in 10,440,000. For comparison, the chances for car fatality is 1 in 10,000.)


Investigating Questions

  • How would you apply what you know about rotary encoders and/or calibration techniques to other devices or inventions? (Answers will vary: Rotary encoders could be applied to bicycle wheels to measure speed when biking. Calibration can be used in an invention device that measures water temperature so that your bathroom showers are the same water temperature each time.)


Pre-Activity Assessment

Questions: Ask a few questions to engage students in the bigger real-world context of the activity topic and assess their base knowledge of the topic. Ask the students:

  • Even though many horror movies show people stuck in elevators, why do you feel it is safe to use an elevator?
  • How do you think engineers design elevators to be safe and work effectively?

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Observe students as they progress through the Data Collection Worksheet. Review their data, calculations, answers and graphs to gauge their mastery of the subject matter.

Post-Activity Assessment

Quick Group Presentations: Use the Elevator Rubric to assess students' elevator designs and their depth of understanding. How well did groups meet the engineering project requirements?

Activity Extensions

If time permits, have students redesign their elevator boxes to be more stable.

Additional Multimedia Support

A 43-second video animation, "Accurate Elevator Positioning with Rotary Encoders" by Pepperl+Fuchs shows the operation of rotary encoders in elevators at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ea8Kr4vVlWk


Book of Odds, Inc. Accessed June 5, 2013. http://www.bookofodds.com/

Fascinating facts about the invention of the elevator by Elisha Graves Otis in 1852. Last revised March 26, 2007. The Great Idea Finder. Accessed June 5, 2013. http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventions/elevator.htm

Harris, Tom. How Elevators Work. How Stuff Works. Accessed June 5, 2013. (good animation) http://science.howstuffworks.com/transport/engines-equipment/elevator3.htm

Harris, Tom. How Escalators Work. How Stuff Works. Accessed June 5, 2013. (good animation) http://science.howstuffworks.com/transport/engines-equipment/escalator1.htm

List of motor vehicle deaths in U.S. by year. Last updated May 20, 2013. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed June 6, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year


Paul Phamduy; Chris Leung


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2013 Polytechnic Institute of New York University

Supporting Program

AMPS GK-12 Program, Polytechnic Institute of New York University


This activity was developed by the Applying Mechatronics to Promote Science (AMPS) Program funded by National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0741714. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Additional support was provided by the Central Brooklyn STEM Initiative (CBSI), funded by six philanthropic organizations.

Last modified: September 13, 2017