Name of Activity Ramp Cars: Wheel and Axle
Author Kelly Clark
Keywords ramp, cars, beams, axles, bushings, wheels, Simple Machines, Potential Energy, Kinetic Energy, friction
Subject Simple Machines
Grade Level K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Time 1 Hour Total
Brief Description Using LEGOs, students will build a car to travel the farthest distance off a ramp.
Lesson Objectives: – To learn about wheels and axles.
– To introduce potential and kinetic energy.
Materials Needed: – LEGO Simple Machine kits or homemade kits with lots of beams, axles, bushings
and wheels.
– Ramp.
– Recording sheet.
– ‘Ramp Cars’ Worksheet.
Preparation and Set Up: – Set up a testing ramp.
— Mark starting point on ramp to start cars.
— Mark the spot at the bottom of the ramp that students will measure distance traveled from.
– Make one copy of the ‘Ramp Cars’ worksheet for each student.

– Arrange students in pairs.
– Distribute materials.
Necessary Background This activity explores the concepts of kinetic and potential energy. A car moving down a slope converts potential energy into kinetic energy. Potential energy is the amount of stored energy the car has when it is sitting at the top of the ramp. As the car moves down the ramp it converts potential energy into kinetic energy – the energy of movement of the car. At the bottom of the ramp the car has converted all the potential energy to kinetic energy. The point just at the bottom of the ramp is the point at which the car has its maximum kinetic energy. The car will slow at the bottom of the ramp due to loss of energy to the floor through friction – the force between the car tires and the ground.

Simple machine
Potential energy
Kinetic energy

  1. Tell student that they the design challenge is to build a car that will travel down a ramp and then travel the farthest horizontal distance from the bottom of the ramp.
    1. Tell students about potential energy. The energy that the car has at the top of the ramp before it is released (stored energy). This energy is converted into kinetic energy (the energy of the movement of the car has while moving).
      1. Explain that potential energy is highest at the top of the ramp (explain this by telling students that the car has the ‘potential’ to travel the farthest when it is placed here vs. when it is placed lower on the ramp). Potential energy is affected by gravity and the mass of the car.
      2. Explain that the kinetic energy is highest when the car is just at the bottom of the ramp because this is when it is moving the fastest, but has no more potential energy from being on the ramp.
      3. Explain that the force of friction – the force of the ground on the tires – is what slows the car down when it reaches the bottom of the ramp. Without friction, the car would continue to go forever in the same direction at the same speed.
    2. Tell student that they can build their car however they would like using the material provided. They can change the number of wheels, type of wheels, axles, etc. Remind them to think about potential energy, kinetic energy, and the forces of friction
  2. Have students build and test their cars. Allow each group three tests and record the farthest trial on the board or on a sheet.
  3. Have the students fill out the ‘Ramp Car’ Worksheet.
  4. Bring the class together to discuss the activity.
    1. Talk about what would be different if the ramp was shallower, steeper, rougher, or smoother. Do a demonstration if possible. Use this demo to discuss inclined planes.
    2. Discuss the different designs. Whose car went the farthest? What was different about this design? What did some of the other designs look like and why did they not go as far?
    3. Conclude by asking students how they might improve their designs.
Extensions or Modifications: You can modify this activity to be applicable to older grades by having student graph distance v. time, taking the mass of their cars and predicting how far their car will travel using mathematics.
Reference 1
Reference 2
Reference 3
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3 Responses to Ramp Cars: Wheel and Axle

  1. The Columbus School 4th grade classroom taught by Mr. Plati did this activity by trying first to make sturdy cars and not focusing on how far they traveled. The cars had to drop off a desk without falling apart. Students achieved this goal in numerous ways, such as using bigger wheels, widening the base of their car, or using strong reinforcements. All of the cars were able to travel distances independently as well, and a follow-up could have been to use a ramp to test the distances.

  2. Jennifer Mui says:

    We did this activity at the Columbus School with Ms. Dipersio’s 4th grade class. We started off by talking about how to build a car using the different LEGO pieces that were provided. We focused on documenting what changes they would make to a car for each trial to see how it would affect the distance travelled (from a ramp). For instance, the kids would experiment with how long the car should be, the size of the wheels, and other design decisions. Overall, the kids had a great time and really enjoyed this activity.

  3. Freddy and I did this with fifth graders in the Sarah Greenwood school. They had a great time. If you do this activity, make sure you have something that you can use as a steady ramp – we tried to use a long piece of paper taped to our teacher’s desk, and it worked for a while, but it started ripping as the kids got more excited about testing.

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