Hands-on Activity: Engineering Derby: Tool Ingenuity

Contributed by: RESOURCE GK-12 Program, College of Engineering, University of California Davis

Quick Look

Grade Level: 4 (3-5)

Time Required: 1 hour

Expendable Cost/Group: US $1.00

Group Size: 6

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Problem Solving

A photograph shows six youngsters in a classroom clustered around a board ramp from the table to the floor. One girl uses a wooden skewer to push a white Ping Pong ball down the ramp while a boy kneeling near the ramp bottom holds an envelope to catch the ball.
A student team runs the engineering derby obstacle course.
Copyright © 2015 Denise Jabusch, University of California Davis


Student teams are challenged to navigate a table tennis ball through a timed obstacle course using only the provided unconventional “tools.” Teams act as engineers by working through the steps of the engineering design process to complete the overall task with each group member responsible to accomplish one of the obstacle course challenges. Inspired by the engineers who helped the Apollo 13 astronauts through critical problems in space, students must be innovative with the provided supplies to use them as tools to move the ball through the obstacles as swiftly as possible. Groups are encouraged to communicate with each other to share vital information. The course and tool choices are easily customizable for varied age groups and/or difficulty levels. Pre/post assessment handouts, competition rules and judging rubric are provided.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Communication and teamwork are critical (and sometimes unappreciated) aspects of engineering. Not only must engineers work together in teams, they must also be able to fluidly work with diverse groups of people. This activity provides a scenario in which students act as engineers faced with multiple challenges and constraints to use teamwork and communication to complete an obstacle course before time runs out. Each group must think about how to efficiently spend its limited time, as well as brainstorm ways to use supplies as tools, much like time-limited engineers brainstorm and tinker as they work through the engineering design process. Teams are randomly assigned so students work with classmates they might not typically choose. Like engineers, students will not succeed in this activity if they are unwilling to work together or unable to clearly communicate their thoughts.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Communicate clearly with one another in a way that is effective and respectful.
  • Work as a team and be a team player.
  • Work creatively to find new “tool” uses for assorted supplies.
  • Abandon failed ideas and quickly learn from mistakes.

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.

  • 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 ) More Details

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    This Performance Expectation 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:

  • Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved. (Grades 3 - 5 ) More Details

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    This Performance Expectation focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
    Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
    Plan and conduct an investigation collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, using fair tests in which variables are controlled and the number of trials considered.

    Alignment agreement:

    Tests are often designed to identify failure points or difficulties, which suggest the elements of the design that need to be improved.

    Alignment agreement:

    Different solutions need to be tested in order to determine which of them best solves the problem, given the criteria and the constraints.

    Alignment agreement:

  • Systems have parts or components that work together to accomplish a goal. (Grades K - 2 ) More Details

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  • People plan in order to get things done. (Grades K - 2 ) More Details

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  • When parts of a system are missing, it may not work as planned. (Grades 3 - 5 ) More Details

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  • Resources are the things needed to get a job done, such as tools and machines, materials, information, energy, people, capital, and time. (Grades 3 - 5 ) More Details

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  • Tools and machines extend human capabilities, such as holding, lifting, carrying, fastening, separating, and computing. (Grades 3 - 5 ) More Details

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  • Requirements are the limits to designing or making a product or system. (Grades 3 - 5 ) More Details

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  • 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 ) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved. (Grades 3 - 5 ) More Details

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Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

  • 1 envelope containing 12 “tools,” which are items such as a sponge, rubber band, plastic sandwich bag, wooden skewer, screw, adjustable wrench, half of a paper plate, 6 inches of masking tape, pipe cleaner, shoelace, pencil and clothespin; this is an example list; feel free to substitute with whatever available “tools” you have as long as each group is given the exact same supplies.
  • Pre-Assessment, one per student
  • Post-Assessment, one per student
  • Competition Rules, one per team (alternatively, depending on student age and reading level, you may want to review the rules verbally, as a class)
  • Judging Rubric, one per team (alternatively, depending on student age and reading level, you may want to review the rules verbally, as a class)

To share with the entire class:

  • table tennis ball (aka ping-pong ball)
  • stopwatch
  • obstacle course; set up an obstacle course that all teams use, such as one using the suggested materials below (see Figure 1), which you may want to modify, depending on available supplies and classroom space:
    • 2 three-foot-long (1-meter-long) tables
    • 2 wooden blocks or bricks; at least 2 x 4-inches (5 x 10-cm) in size, to create an incline on one of the tables
    • ramp, such as a ~5-foot-long (1.5-meter-long) piece of cardboard or wood
    • ~3-foot-long (1-meter-long) tube with a minimum 2-inch (5-cm) diameter, large enough to fit the table tennis ball
  • (optional) award, treat or special privilege for the winning team(s)

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/ucd_derbytool_activity1] to print or download.

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The Apollo 13 mission, which was a 1970 manned mission intended to land on the moon, is a classic example of engineers working together to meet a deadline. (You may have seen a movie about it.) During the mission, the spacecraft’s carbon dioxide removal system began to fail. Back on Earth, engineers had to race against the clock to find a way to fix a carbon dioxide removal system by using tools and supplies—anything that the astronauts might have on board the spacecraft—that were not meant for those purposes. The engineers had to work quickly because carbon dioxide levels were rising to toxic levels for the astronauts! Then, the engineers on Earth had to relay their makeshift repair plan to the astronauts in space—carefully choosing words that would clearly get their ideas across in a timely manner before the carbon dioxide levels began to impair the judgment of the astronauts.

The engineers had to be innovative under pressure and find new, non-conventional uses for available items in order to fix the system. In today’s activity, you will act like the engineers who worked on the Apollo 13 mission; your group will have 10 minutes to navigate this ball (hold up a table tennis ball) through an obstacle course consisting of six challenges, one per team member. You must work as a team and may only touch the ball using the provided tools—no hands! And, the ball may not touch the ground—if it does, you will have to repeat the obstacle.

After you have completed this challenge, I will conduct a post-mission meeting with each group. Together, we will discuss what went well and how your team could improve. After the meeting, your team will run the course one more time to see if you can learn from your mistakes and improve your time. At the end of the second run, you will write a short report to share your findings. Good luck!


Before the Activity

  • Gather materials and make copies of the Pre-Assessment and Post-Assessment.
  • Familiarize yourself with the Competition Rules and Judging Rubric.
  • Assemble an obstacle course that consists of six different challenges, one per group member. See Figure 1 for an example obstacle course composed of two tables, two wooden blocks, a ramp and a tube. Adjust the Competition Rules (rule #2) to reflect the exact obstacle course you set up. It is best if the obstacle course is set up somewhere out-of-sight from the rest of the groups, such as in a nearby room; see the Troubleshooting Tips section for more about this.

Arrows on a diagram show a possible obstacle course route in which a ball is moved from the floor, up 3 feet to a table, across the 3-foot table, over a 1-foot gap to another table, across 3 feet on a tilted table (one set of the table legs are propped up on blocks), down a 5-foot ramp, into and through a 3-foot tube.
Figure 1. Example six-station obstacle course setup.
Copyright © 2015 Andrew Palermo, University of California Davis

With the Students

  1. Administer the pre-assessment, as described in the Assessment section. Alternatively, have students complete the seven questions later, while they are waiting for other teams to run the obstacle course.
  2. Present to the class the Introduction/Motivation content.
  3. Randomly draw names to divide the class into groups of six students each. Explain that students need to work as a team with classmates they might not typically choose. Organizing teams like this mirrors real-world situations in which engineers work on all sorts of different project teams with people they may or may not know. Like engineers, students will succeed in today’s challenge only if they are willing to work together and able to express their thoughts and ideas through effective communication!
  4. Ask students to define the term “constraint.” Discuss the definition as a class. What does it mean to engineers?
  5. Inform students that they will follow the steps of the engineering design process to complete the challenge. Show them a flowchart of the steps (see Figure 2), which are often performed in different sequences and repeated as necessary. In as much or little detail as is necessary or as time permits, review with the class the steps, emphasizing the cyclical nature of the process. These are the steps all engineers use when they work together to create new structures, products and processes.

A flowchart of the engineering design process with seven steps placed in a circular arrangement: ask: identify the need and constraints; research the problem; imagine: develop possible solutions; plan: select a promising solution; create: build a prototype; test and evaluate prototype; improve: redesign as needed, returning back to the first step.
Figure 2. The steps of the engineering design process.
Copyright © 2014 TeachEngineering.org. All rights reserved.

  1. Remind teams of the engineering design challenge (the project goal): To navigate a table tennis ball through a timed obstacle course using only the provided unconventional “tools.”
  2. Ask: Identify the need and constraints: Go over the Competition Rules. Direct the teams to discuss with their team members which rules serve as constraints that they must take into consideration as they devise a solution to the obstacle course challenge.
  3. Research the problem: Encourage groups to survey the obstacle course and identify the six challenges.
  4. Hand out to each group an envelope containing the 12 tools.
  5. Ask each group to choose a leader (or assign team leaders). Explain that the team leader’s role is to help the team make decisions and coach the team through the obstacle course. It is important that leaders are aware that initial ideas may not work so they must be ready to quickly come up with alternative solutions devised with input from the rest of the group.
  6. Remind students that effective communication does not mean yelling; rather, it means clearly expressing one’s ideas in a calm tone of voice. Remind students to separate personal fault, performance and beliefs when communicating. They are on the same team, and the goal is to work together to successfully find a solution to a common problem.

A photograph shows six students around a table, all focused on a drawing as they brainstorm their obstacle course strategy.
Figure 3. Students brainstorming their obstacle course strategy.
Copyright © 2015 Denise Jabusch, University of California Davis

  1. Imagine and plan: Give groups time for a short, one-minute brainstorming session (see Figure 3). Direct teams to use this time to assign to each team member an obstacle course challenge and one or two tools, keeping in mind that once competitors have their tools, they may not exchange them. Point out that the short brainstorming session is an opportunity to imagine and plan—to develop possible solutions and then select the most promising solutions. This includes developing an overall strategy and techniques for how each tool could help navigate the ball through the obstacle course. Inform them that after completing the first obstacle course attempt, additional brainstorming time will be provided.
  2. Test: One-by-one have teams complete their first obstacle course trials, as detailed in the Competition Rules. Advise groups to share ideas and keep talking throughout the event, behaving like a team of engineers by participating, helping and observing. Remind groups to take mental notes during the trial of problems encountered and ideas for ways in which they could shorten their course time by improving their teamwork and communication. (After the trial, students will have an opportunity to take note of their findings.) Use a stopwatch to record the amount of time it takes each group to complete the obstacle course and note any penalty actions. As guided by the Judging Rubric, determine each team’s final time. If students stumble with an obstacle, keep them motivated by suggesting they use their secondary tool or both tools at the same time.
  3. Evaluate: After completing the first trial, have students consider their course time and penalties, and then write notes about the experience. Prompt team discussion by suggesting they ask themselves: What went well? What was problematic? How can we improve our communication, use of tools, and/or team member placement? (optional; Have students note the time it takes the other teams to complete the course, or post all team course times on the classroom board.)
  4. Improve: Redesign as needed. Walk around the classroom and speak with each group, involving as many students as possible. During these “post-mission” debriefing sessions, ask each group to summarize for you what went well and what could be improved. Ask each group to identify the obstacle that was the most challenging for the team. Prompt students to brainstorm possible solutions. If any mistakes occurred (such as touching the ball), direct the teams to come up with preventative measures to prevent those mistakes. The debriefing session gives students a longer period of time to synthesize alternative methods towards achieving promising solutions. Expect the team leader to be responsible for moderating the discussion and making sure the group stays on topic. (During a second iteration, teams will get to implement their ideas.)
  5. Test again: One-by-one, facilitate teams in completing second obstacle course trials, implementing their new ideas. Inform each team of its course time and any penalties.
  6. After completing second trials, direct the groups to compare and contrast their two experiences.
  7. Ask students to write short reports that answer the questions provided in the Assessment section.
  8. When students are finished with their reports, have each group share its findings with the class. Compare team scores and determine the winning team.
  9. (optional) If time permits: See if students can improve even further by working together as a class to conduct a third trial.
  10. Administer the post-assessment, as described in the Assessment section.


communication: The imparting and exchange of information, ideas and/or news by speech, writing or signs.

constraint: A limitation or restriction. For engineers, design constraints are the requirements and limitations that final design solutions must meet.

improvise: To create or devise a solution by making-do, without preparation, when faced with the absence of expected resources or results.

innovative: Finding new methods and original ideas.

non-conventional: Something that is different than typical or normal. Also called unconventional.

teamwork: The combined actions of a group of people to accomplish a specific task.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Pre-Assessment: Administer the Pre-Assessment to assess students’ prior knowledge about teamwork, communication and how to work with other engineers. They are asked to define six vocabulary words and reflect on what strengths they bring to team projects.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Engineering Derby: Students work in groups to meet the challenge and follow the Competition Rules. Use the Judging Rubric to gauge team success. In order to evaluate student performance, it is important to take notes during each trial about how well each group member works on the team and whether (and to what extent) the group made improvements after the first trial.

Post-Trial Analysis: Post-job meetings are common in engineering to evaluate prototypes and solutions, learn from mistakes and devise improvements. In this activity, the 15-minute debriefing following the first obstacle course trial serves as the post-job, or post-mission, meeting. Assess the teams for how well they are able to recap their results and present their techniques to the project manager (the teacher). Ask students what went well and what could be improved upon. After sharing their findings, give groups another chance to redesign and refine their communication and tool techniques before running the obstacle course again.

Post-Activity Assessment

Reflect and Report: After completing the second obstacle trial, ask students to individually write short reports that answer the following questions. Review their answers to gauge their depth of comprehension.

  • Did you improve your time? If so, how? If not, why?
  • How did your communication change over the course of the activity?
  • What did you do differently?
  • What was the most creative use of a tool?
  • What advice would you give to a new group doing the obstacle course?

Post-Assessment: Administer the four-question Post-Assessment, which asks students to think back to what they learned from their post-job meetings—a way to realize the benefits of the iterative engineering design process. Another question asks students to design their own obstacles, complete with labeled sketches. Then a multiple choice question is provided to assess student’s understanding of group communication—in this case, decision making. The final question asks students to identify constraints they faced during the activity. Review students’ answers to gauge their depth of comprehension.

Troubleshooting Tips

During the testing trials, it is important to segregate the competing group from the rest of the class because students quickly learn what to do and what not to do and adapt their strategies accordingly. Thus, segregating the testing group from the rest of the class—such as by placing the obstacle course in a separate room—gives every team a fair chance to compete. While one team is running its trial, have the rest of the students work on other aspects of the activity, such as the pre-assessment, trial preparation strategies, documenting post-trial observations and notes, and the post-assessment.

Additional Multimedia Support

For more about the steps of the engineering design process, including a downloadable PDF file of small-size classroom posters and a student handout of the design process flow diagram, see https://www.teachengineering.org/k12engineering/designprocess.


Andrew Palermo


© 2016 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2015 University of California Davis

Supporting Program

RESOURCE GK-12 Program, College of Engineering, University of California Davis


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed by the Renewable Energy Systems Opportunity for Unified Research Collaboration and Education (RESOURCE) project in the College of Engineering under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. DGE 0948021. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Many thanks to Travis Smith, Alisa Lee and Jean VanderGheynst for their guidance, leadership and orchestration of RESOURCE and MESA Day.

Last modified: June 14, 2018


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