Curricular Unit: Mechanics Mania

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Three photos: A spinning top, a boy swings on a tire swing, a sleek speed boat kicks up a lot of water spray.
Students explore everyday movements
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Through 10 lessons and numerous activities, students explore the natural universal rules engineers and physicists use to understand how things move and stay still. Together, these rules are called "mechanics." The study of mechanics is a way to improve our understanding of everyday movements, such as how gravity pulls things together, how objects balance, spin and twirl, and how things fly and fall. While studying Newton's three laws of motion, students gain hands-on experience with the concepts of forces, changes in motion, and action and reaction. Through hands-on activities, students model the behavior of parachutes and helicopters, closely examine falling objects, build and use a spring scale, examine collisions between skateboards, make model rockets with balloons and string, collect data from cotton ball catapults, study friction with small hovercrafts made from old CDs and balloons, experiment with center of mass by balancing objects on coat hangers and strings, compete to design clay beams with the best strength-to-weight ratio, experiment with weight distribution on homemade spinning tops, experiment with string length, weight and angle of release of pendulums made from fishing weights and string, and use marshmallows and spaghetti to construct their own structures to see which can hold the most weight. For each lesson, associated literacy activities provide additional student engagement. See the Unit Overview section for a list of topics by lesson and descriptions of the associated literacy activities.

Engineering Connection

Mechanics is a branch of physics concerned with the action of forces on bodies. Engineers of all disciplines use the concepts explored in this unit to design machines, structures, appliances and products that can withstand the real-world forces applied to them. Using this knowledge, engineers are able to determine which way water might flow, to compute whether a building will stay up or fall down, or how things might break. Mechanics is an important tool for explaining the world around us, and a method to explore what things it might be possible for us to do and make!

Understanding lift, weight, thrust and drag is important for designing vehicles or objects that move in air, space, land or water. Understanding Newton's laws of motion helps engineers quantify the "invisible" forces acting on moving and stationary objects. Understanding the force of friction enables the design of safe roads, tires, cars and brakes. Analysis of strength of materials (yield strength, ultimate tensile strength and fatigue strength) figures into the selection of materials used to create items such as chairs, appliances, toys, bicycles, medical joint replacements, rock climbing rope, door handles, roof shingles, diving boards, bridges and playground equipment. Understanding rotational inertia and angular momentum is key in the design of objects intended to spin: amusement park rides, fishing pole casting gear, textile machinery, centrifuges. The regular back-and-forth movement of pendulums plays into designs that involve springs, radio waves, clocks, balancing robots and earthquake equipment. Bridges, cranes, skyscrapers and space stations in stable equilibrium do not collapse, topple to the ground or implode. Besides large human-made structures (subways, skyscrapers, dams, moon rovers), engineers consider tension and compression forces when designing common products such as bookshelves, pens and wheelchairs. Engineers use mathematical models to predict the expected loads on these items, then, determine suitable material components to support the anticipated forces.

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 (

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.

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Unit Overview

Physical science / physics topics by lesson: (1) force, drag, gravity, weight as applies to parachutes and helicopters, (2) forces and gravity as apply to falling objects, (3) the physical force of linear momentum [movement in a straight line] through investigation of collisions, including equation for momentum, (4) Newton's three laws of motion, (5) the force of friction, especially with respect to tires and roads, (6) stability and equilibrium related to the concept of center of mass, (7) stress and strain forces, including the strength of materials, (8) the concept of angular momentum and its correlation to mass, velocity and radius, including rotation and an object's mass distribution, (9) pendulums and their everyday applications, and (10) compressive and tensile forces and the stress of materials.

Associated literacy activities topics by lesson: (1) students recreate the Wright brothers' first flight in the style of the "You Are There" TV series, (2) students write a biographical sketch of an artist or athlete who lives on the edge, riding the "gravity wave," to better understand how they work with gravity and manage risk, (3) students investigate the psychological phenomenon of momentum; they see how the "big mo" of the bandwagon effect contributes to the development of fads and manias, and how modern technology and mass media accelerate and intensify the effect, (4) students design a behavioral survey and learn basic protocol for primary research, survey design and report writing, ( 5) students explore the theme of conflict in literature, and the difference between internal and external conflict; through stories, they discuss methods of managing and resolving conflict and interpersonal friction, (6) students learn about motion capture technology, the importance of center of gravity in animation and how use the concept of center of gravity in writing an action scene, (7) while learning about the stages of group formation, group dynamics and team member roles, students discover how collective action can alleviate personal feelings of stress and tension, (8) students use basic methods of comparative mythology to consider why spinning and weaving are common motifs in creation myths and folktales, (9) students explore the mechanical concept of rhythm, based on the principle of oscillation, in a broader biological and cultural context — in dance and sports, poetry and other literary forms, and communication in general, and (10) students explore the psychological concepts of stress and stress management, and complete a writing activity.

Unit Schedule


Pre-Unit Test: To conduct an overall pre/post content assessment of this curricular unit (ten lessons, with associated activities), administer the attached Mechanics Mania Pre/Post Test to the class before beginning any discussion on the topics of this unit. Then, after completion of the final lesson, administer the same (now post-unit) test to the same students and compare pre- to post- scores. In addition, this short test is suitable to administer to a control group of students who have not completed the unit, to comparatively test the impact of the curricular unit on learning. This test was developed by a TE user of this curricular unit.

Post-Unit Test: If you administered the pre-unit test before beginning this curricular unit, conclude the overall pre/post assessment of the unit (ten lessons, with associated activities), by administering the Mechanics Mania Pre/Post Test to the class after concluding the final lesson and its activity. Compare pre- to post- scores to gauge the impact of the curricular unit on students' learning.



See individual lessons and activities.


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and the National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.