Hands-on Activity: Engineer a Sneaker

Contributed by: Making the Connection, Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network (WEPAN)
A girl wearing sneakers sits on a basketball.
Students engineer their own sneaker


The goal is for students to understand the basics of engineering that go into the design of sneakers. The bottom or sole of a sneaker provides support, cushioning and traction. In addition, the sole is flexible and may have some fashion-based functions such as cool colors or added height. Sneakers are well-engineered products, utilizing a mix of materials to create highly functional, useful shoes. For the activity challenge, students decide on specific design requirements, such as good traction or deep cushioning, and then use a variety of materials to build prototype shoes that meet the design criteria.

Engineering Connection

Biomedical engineers are involved in the design of sneakers. While it is important for sneakers to look stylish in order to appeal to consumers, they must also function properly. Many factors must be taken into consideration when designing sneakers, such as who will wear them (male, female, child) and for what types of activities. The end user and activity type indicate what shoe characteristics are most important for the design, such as traction, cushioning and/or height.

Educational Standards

  •   Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Math
    • 4. Fluently add and subtract multi-digit whole numbers using the standard algorithm. (Grade 4) [2010] ...show
    • 2. Use the four operations to solve word problems involving distances, intervals of time, liquid volumes, masses of objects, and money, including problems involving simple fractions or decimals, and problems that require expressing measurements given in a larger unit in terms of a smaller unit. Represent measurement quantities using diagrams such as number line diagrams that feature a measurement scale. (Grade 4) [2010] ...show
  •   International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
    • K. Test and evaluate the design in relation to pre-established requirements, such as criteria and constraints, and refine as needed. (Grades 6 - 8) [2000] ...show
  •   Massachusetts: Science
    • 1.1 Given a design task, identify appropriate materials (e.g., wood, paper, plastic, aggregates, ceramics, metals, solvents, adhesives) based on specific properties and characteristics (e.g., strength, hardness, and flexibility). (Grades 6 - 8) [2006] ...show
  •   Next Generation Science Standards: Science
    • 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) [2013] ...show
    • 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) [2013] ...show

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:
  • Analyze a product's components and function.
  • Recognize a design need or engineering challenge.
  • Develop, sketch and discuss possible solutions and select one.
  • Select appropriate materials for a design solution.
  • Construct a working model using a variety of materials.
  • Use, evaluate and suggest ways to improve a product.

Materials List

Each group needs:


Sneakers are designed for an assortment of uses. Each application has specific characteristics that must be taken into account before manufacturing. What are your ideas for a sneaker that has never been made before?
Today, you will define specific characteristics for your sneaker, select suitable materials, and create a prototype, just as engineers do.


Providing a softening effect to forces.
A functional early design of a product that is intended for testing.
Resistance to being flexed.
Ability to slide a load across a surface.



Designing today's sneakers is an engineering science that combines physics, biomechanics and materials science. The engineering designs take advantage of a wide range materials and creative structural concepts to provide durability, comfort, cushioning and stability. Good designs also consider the characteristics of various foot types (female, male, child) since each has typical shapes and proportions. For example, women's feet are usually narrower with higher arches than men's feet. The inside layout of a well-designed sneaker takes these physical differences into account. Another important consideration is the activity application. Each sport has different footwear requirements; some require high flexibility, others maximum cushioning or high traction.

Before the Activity

With the Students

Part 1: Modeling and Building a Sneaker
  1. As a class, discuss the following: Think about the characteristics of your shoes. What would you like to be different about them? What would it take to create a sneaker with that new property or component? What materials do you know about that could be used?
  2. Divide the class into groups of three or four students each. Give each group Worksheet B: Design Specifications for the Sneaker to complete.
  3. Hand out two copies of Worksheet A: Materials and Properties to each group. Discuss the properties of each material (springy, soft, rigid, sticky, rough, etc.).
  4. Hand out two copies of Worksheet C: Materials and Costs to each group. Costs are assigned to each item. The designed pair of sneakers must be within budget, limiting options and forcing engineering trade-off decisions.
  5. Distribute two fabric bases plus a bag that includes the materials available for construction of the prototype sneakers. Students can cut or shape materials as desired. Alternatively, set up a "store" at which students can purchase the materials they want by completing and submitting Worksheet C.
  6. Once students select the materials that they feel will work best (meet their design criteria) for their prototype sneakers, have them use glue and tape to assemble the prototypes.
  7. Allow the prototypes time to dry.
Part 2: Evaluating and Improving the Design
  1. Distribute the dry prototypes to the original designers and two lengths of twine for tying on the prototypes.
  2. If time permits, have groups present their designs to the class, explaining what worked well and how they would improve their prototypes. Evaluate each design according to the criteria in #3, below. If time is short, enlist the help of another adult to evaluate half of the groups.
  3. Use the following criteria to evaluate for design success, rating on a 1-3 scale:
  1. Height: Measure the student's height with and without the sneakers on.
  2. Traction: Slide around the floor with and without the sneakers on.
  3. Cushioning: Jump up and down with and without the sneakers on.
  4. Stiffness: Bend and twist prototype sneakers compared to store-bought sneakers.
  1. If students suggested any additional design criteria, have the group discuss and decide what would be appropriate tests for design success.
  2. Conclude with a class discussion of the following: Compare your sneaker prototypes to some of the sneakers that students are wearing. How do the materials you used compare to the ones in the store-bought sneakers? Are the ideas you have created realistic? What activities are best suited to your designs?

Safety Issues

  • Cover desks and floor surfaces to protect them from glue during construction and testing, or set up a special "test area."
  • These sneakers are only prototypes and should not be used for actual wear after the adult-supervised testing.

Investigating Questions

  • Which material properties help the sneaker be comfortable when you apply strong forces or pressure to your feet? (The greatest comfort comes from materials that are cushioning [soft] and have the ability to "bounce back.")
  • Why is traction important on a sneaker? (Traction is created by friction between the base of the sneaker and the ground. Without traction, shoes slip, as if you were trying to move on an icy surface.)
  • Why do the prices of sneakers vary so much? (Sneaker prices vary because they depend on material costs, marketing costs, manufacturing costs, and supply and demand pressures.)


Post-Activity Assessment: Observe class participation in during the discussion about sneaker characteristics.
Activity Embedded Assessment: Evaluate design success during testing. Rate criteria using a 1-3 scale.
Post-Activity Assessment: Assign students to write descriptions of their sneaker designs, explaining the reasons for each feature and what activities they would be best suited for.

Activity Extensions

Have students create a list of other types of footwear. From this list, either discuss the importance of (or create a graph that shows) the same design criteria (height, stiffness, cushioning, traction) for each of these.

Activity Scaling

  • For upper grades, assign students to research specific materials and combinations of materials that are used to manufacture real sneakers


"Sneakers: From Start to Finish (Made in the USA)" Samuel G. Woods, Gale Zucker (photographer)


Martha Cyr


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

Supporting Program

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


Project funded by Lucent Technologies Foundation.

Last modified: February 4, 2016

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