Design Technology - Wheels, Gr. 3-4


In this unit, students design and build small vehicles and test different ways to propel them. The Discovery Channel has some neat design problems for students at Junkyard Wars for the Classroom. Visit our First Flight page for some airplane design ideas.

The Lemelson Center's Invention at Play has some online activities to encourage the creativity involved in invention and design which is at the center of this unit.

Constructing vehicles provides an opportunity for using a parallel task to build skills for the NYS Elementary Level Performance Test in Science. The Ball and Ramp activity on the test administered at Grade 4 involves students rolling an object down a ramp and recording the distance that the object travels.

Use the following task to learn concepts and skills to explore the relationship between an object and the distance it will roll down a ramp.


  1. Students build and test their chassis on the ramp.
  2. If the chassis will travel in a straight line, the students can enter their vehicle in a road race, where the winner is the vehicle that will travel the longest distance.
  3. Students record vehicle name and name of "driver".  
  4. Students mass the vehicle using a balance and cubigrams (or calibrated plastic weights) or a triple beam balance.
  5. Determine the angle of the ramp using a protractor.
  6. Create a data chart for the contestants.
  7. Compare mass and distance traveled (and other variables.)
  8. Students are challenged to make their vehicle travel farther.
Discussion Questions:

What would happen if we change the mass of the vehicle?

What would happen if we change other things about the vehicle? (wheel size, etc.)

How could the ramp be changed to make the vehicle travel farther?
  1. As the vehicles or the ramp are changed, measure and record the new distance traveled.
  2. Determine a winner. Draw conclusions.

When the mass of a vehicle changes, it can cause a change in the distance the vehicle will travel. A number of variables such as friction, wind, length and angle of ramp, balance of vehicle and the mass of the vehicle can affect the outcome.

With a greater mass, a vehicle will travel farther because it has more potential energy. Keeping the mass the same, but increasing the angle will also increase the distance the vehicle will travel.
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