Hands-on Activity Sneaking Up on Sneaker Design

Quick Look

Grade Level: 3 (3-4)

Time Required: 45 minutes

  • Part A: 10 minutes per sport, 5 minute summary
  • Part B: 20 minutes
  • Part C: 20 minutes

Expendable Cost/Group: US $1.00

Group Size: 2

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Science and Technology

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle

Photo shows side and bottom views of a modern running shoe.
Engineering our sneakers!
Copyright © 2014 Denise W. Carlson. Used with permission.


Students explore why different types of sneakers are used in a variety of common sports, and how engineers analyze design needs in sneakers and many other everyday items. The goal is for students to understand the basics of engineering associated with the design of athletic shoes. The design of footware based on how it will be used involves bioengineering. Students analyze the foot movements in a variety of sports, develop design criteria for a specific sport, and make recommendations for requirements for the sneakers used in that sport.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Bioengineers are involved in the design of sneakers. They combine their knowledge of the human body with mechanical engineering and materials science to design sneakers that aid athletic performance. The shoes must provide the right type of support and traction needed for the intended sport while also taking into consideration their appearance.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Analyze a product's components and functions.
  • Recognize a design need or engineering challenge and define the associated design criteria and constraints.
  • Communicate a design solution through drawing or speaking.

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

3-5-ETS1-1. 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)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process, or system and includes several criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Alignment agreement:

Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account.

Alignment agreement:

People's needs and wants change over time, as do their demands for new and improved technologies.

Alignment agreement:

NGSS Performance Expectation

3-5-ETS1-2. Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 3 - 5)

Do you agree with this alignment?

Click to view other curriculum aligned to this Performance Expectation
This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Generate and compare multiple solutions to a problem based on how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the design problem.

Alignment agreement:

Research on a problem should be carried out before beginning to design a solution. Testing a solution involves investigating how well it performs under a range of likely conditions.

Alignment agreement:

At whatever stage, communicating with peers about proposed solutions is an important part of the design process, and shared ideas can lead to improved designs.

Alignment agreement:

Engineers improve existing technologies or develop new ones to increase their benefits, to decrease known risks, and to meet societal demands.

Alignment agreement:

  • Students will develop an understanding of the attributes of design. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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  • Students will develop an understanding of engineering design. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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  • Evaluate designs based on criteria, constraints, and standards. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

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  • Identify a problem that reflects the need for shelter, storage, or convenience. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

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  • Identify relevant design features (e.g., size, shape, weight) for building a prototype of a solution to a given problem. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

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Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Four of the following setups:

  • basketball hoop and ball
  • baseball bat
  • area to jog in
  • soccer field and net
  • track and field events (running, long jump)

Each group needs:

  • paper, pencils, and pens
  • shallow baking pan, large enough to step into with one foot
  • water to put into the baking pan
  • green or red construction paper
  • paper towels to dry feet
  • (optional) inexpensive canvas sneakers or other athletic shoes

Worksheets and Attachments

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


Sneakers are one of the most commonly worn shoes in our culture. They provide comfortable support for our feet as we go about our active lives as students, athletes, educators and engineers. The design of sneakers (and all athletic shoes) is based on how they will be used and is one type of bioengineering.

Do you own a pair of sneakers? Maybe more than one pair? (Listen to student answers.) Do you have a special pair of shoes that you use for a certain sport? Do those shoes make a difference in how you perform that sport? Well, think about that during our activity today.

Today, you are bioengineers who have been asked by the Active Sports Shoe Company to help design a new line of shoes for a variety of sports using the engineering design process.

First, we will explore foot motion in sports. To do this, you will participate in a variety of different sports, observing and discussing the differences in foot motions and shoe features and requirements that would make them more effective for the athletes. Then, you will learn more about feet by taking a closer look at your own.

With all this new information, you will be better prepared to give recommendations for how to improve a sneaker for a specific sport, and maybe even create your own sneaker design!



The design of today's sneakers is an engineering science that combines physics and biomechanics. Engineering design utilizes materials that provide durability, comfort, cushioning and stability. Good designs also consider the type of foot (female, male, child) since each has different characteristics. Another component in the design is the consideration of which sport the shoe will be used to play. Each sport has different footwear requirements. Some need high flexibility, others maximum cushioning or high levels of friction. In addition, the foot structure is considered as well. Women's feet have a different shape than men's feet and children's feet are shaped differently than adult feet. The inside layout of a well-designed sneaker takes these physical differences into account.

Sneakers originated in 1908 and were comprised of rubber soles with canvas uppers. The Keds™ brand was introduced in 1917. In 1922, the idea to create different models for different needs was introduced. The health and fitness movement of the 1970s created a high demand for sneakers by the public, and in 1979 the concept of cushioning air bubbles in the sole was introduced. Since then, advancing capabilities and creation of new materials has resulted in highly specialized (and expensive) sneakers.

With the Students

Part A: Exploring Foot Motion in Sports

  1. Introduce the engineering design process to the students. Draw the seven steps on the board. Explain that it is an iterative process that engineers use to solve problems. 
  2. Present the sports available for today's activities and have students discuss the most common foot motions used in the sports.
  3. Have 2-3 students do a sport one at a time. They can shoot baskets, swing a baseball bat, jog, dribble a soccer ball, or do track or field events such as the long jump. As each student participates, have the rest of the groups research and observe the actual motions. Answer questions such as:
    • How do their feet move?
    • If your sneaker could have special qualities for that sport what would they be?
    • What suggestions do you have for how their shoes could be changed to match the movements for that sport?
  1. After all students have tried a sport, have them compare the motions they predicted would be most common to the ones they observed happening.
  2. Lead a discussion and ask what type of properties and engineering criteria and constraints the sneaker should have to be best for this sport. Should it be flexible or stiff, slippery or sticky, bouncy or firm? Refer to the attached "What Makes Up Your Sneaker?" diagram that introduces some terminology and features commonly associated with the design of athletic shoes.
  3. Have students do the sport again, with the rest of the group calling out what would be good for the sneaker to be doing as the sport example plays out in front of them. Remind them that they are in the third step of the engineering design process: imagine possible solutions. Have one team member record observations and ideas for each sport.
  4. Move to the next sport and repeat.
  5. After all the sports have been done, have students discuss the differences between them. How do the motions differ? What qualities are needed in the sneaker to help these motions? List these ideas and label as design criteria.
  6. Plan by selecting one sport to analyze. With the ideal sneaker in mind, choose the person in your group who is wearing sneakers most like the ideal one. Have this student test and try the activity, discussing how easy or difficult different parts of it are such as starting, stopping, turning and jumping.
  7. Have students compare shoes. (optional) Pass around a canvas sneaker (and other athletic shoes such as soccer cleats). Compare shoes among classmates. How are the bottoms different? Smoother? Rougher? How does the amount of cushioning and support compare? What does the group think is the advantage(s) of each particular shoe feature?
  8. Conclude with a discussion about how the students acted as engineers.

Part B: Exploring Your Own Feet

  1. Have students each remove a shoe and sock from one foot and step onto a blank piece of red or green construction paper.
  2. Trace around the outside of the bare foot with a pen.
  3. Have each student bring his or her foot tracing to a location where a baking pan is placed on the floor with about a half-inch of water in it. Have students step into the water with their bare foot, shake off the drips (to create a clearer image), and then place the wet foot inside their traced outline.
  4. Lead a discussion about in what ways the wet footprint looks different and similar to the traced outline. Why might both images be important in sneaker design?

Part C: Create Your Own Sneaker Design

Have teams select any sport (not just the ones done for this activity) and each draw a picture of the ideal footwear for that sport. Have students list the design criteria for the selected sport. Discuss how the design criteria differ between sports. Require that they include descriptions of their footwears' qualities and their benefits to athletes. Incorporate design constraints by asking students what sort of budget they would need to build their shoe design. Could they do it with a 100 dollar budget? Share ideas via a guided class discussion or large drawing on a board.


cushioning: Absorbing of shock (sudden force).

flexibility: Easily bent.

friction: Resistance of motion between two touching surfaces.

support: To keep from slipping, to hold up.

traction: Adhesive friction, such as tires on a road.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Observe class participation in discussion on common motions used in sports.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Observe student participation within groups.

Post-Activity Assessment

Have students write-up their sneaker designs explaining the reasons for each recommended feature.

Investigating Questions

  • What part of a sneaker responds to and is made to create friction? (The sole or bottom of the sneaker.)
  • Is the cushioning important for all sports? (No. Some sports require high flexibility or high tactile sense, such as dance and tightrope walking.)
  • Why do some sneakers have smoother bottoms than others? (Smoother bottoms provide more contact area with the floor, which is an advantage on smooth courts, such as basketball courts.)

Activity Extensions

Make a list of sports that have similar types of foot motions. Do these sports need the same kind of shoes or different ones? Why?

Examine the sneakers worn by students in the class. Make a list of sports that each student's sneaker would be best suited for.

Activity Scaling

For more advanced students, have them research the materials used to make sneakers.


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


Martha Cyr

Supporting Program

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


Project funded by Lucent Technologies Foundation.

Last modified: March 22, 2022

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