Exploring Basic Physical Science Concepts


Nancy Landau-Gahres

Sunset Park Learning Center at M.S. 136



Summer Research Program for Science Teachers

August 2006



Grade Levels:  Middle School (most appropriate for 6th grade)



v      Provide a structured inquiry experience for students to explore basic physical science concepts.

v      Engage students in “engineering” activities to provide a context in which scientific concepts can be applied.


Teaching Point:  Students will work in groups to design, build and test a Puff Mobile by using their knowledge of physics and simple machines.


Standards Addressed: NS 5-8.1 (science as inquiry), NS 5-8.2 (motion and forces), NS5-8.5 (science and technology)


Stage and Duration of Activity:  1-2 week, including designing, building, testing and competing.


Handouts and Resources Handout 1 and Handout 2 are attached.  http://pbskids.org/zoom/grownups/engineering/   [The website from which this lesson is adapted and which contains other activities that could be administered in the same way]


Expected background information:  Students should have a strong background in basic physical science concepts including; simple machines, potential and kinetic energy, friction and force. 


Materials per group:  A materials “bank” is required including, but not limited to, thread spools, toy car wheels, paper, scissors, glue, paper clips, toilet paper rolls, wire, tape, tape spools, ruler/tape measurer, etc.


Major Tenets for the project: 

v      Groups will design and construct a “Puff Mobile” or a car that is propelled only by a puff of air. 

v      Groups will work together and debate over a well-planned design, they will create drawings with appropriate measurements, “order” or request materials, construct a puff mobile, experiment with the design and finally present their projects in a contest.

v      Groups that utilize their understanding of physics and simple machines will have the best design and most successful puff mobile. 


 Assessing prior knowledge: 

v      The teacher will begin by reviewing students’ prior knowledge of physical science concepts.  Students will be asked to work individually for 3 minutes listing everything they remember learning in the past 4 weeks.  Students will write these lists in their lab notebook. 

v      The teacher will then direct the students to turn to their partner and share their lists.  Students should add what their partner had to their own list.  Finally, students will work with their entire group (4 people) and share their ideas. 

v      The entire class will then share what they have learned in the past 4 weeks and make a list on chart paper.  If there is a particular concept that students seem confused about the teacher can design a lesson to clarify for the class.


Introduction of the Challenge:

The teacher will explain the proposed challenge to the students, leaning heavily on the idea that students will be engineers throughout the experience.  Engineers use their understanding of the world and design things that work well according to the laws of physics.  Engineers perform experiments to test what works best, they never settle for their first idea.  Engineers take time designing their product and thinking through problems they may encounter.  When problems occur that they never thought of they work through it with their team.  Students are expected to work like engineers; in a team, thinking together and testing their product.  Their final design will be used in an engineering contest for the entire 6th grade.


Contest Rules:

  1. All Puff Mobiles must be smaller that 8cmx8cm.
  2. Puff Mobiles can only be made of the type of materials provided or bring in their own. 
  3. On the day of the contest a controlled amount of air will be created with an aspirator.


Group Design (day 1):

Students will work in groups to begin designing their Puff Mobile.  Students will begin with a brainstorm where all ideas are shared, nothing is rejected.  Then they will discuss with their group which idea they would like to pursue and create a more detailed sketch of that (including measurements).  Finally, students will write down any requests they have for the teacher, ie. Additional materials (see order form).

See worksheet #1

Consultant:  I plan to engage the help of a graduate student in helping students understand ways to improve their design.  The grad student will act as a consultant for groups, reviewing their designs, commenting and meeting with each group during the class period.


Building and Construction (day 2, double period):

Students will work in a group to construct their Puff Mobile.  Once the mobile is constructed students can begin tests.  (see attached worksheet #2)  Students should follow the guidance on the worksheet to vary their tests.


Experimentation (day 3):

Students will continue tests to make sure their design is the best it can be.  Students will be asked use controls and variables to be sure their experiments are accurate.


Poster Creation (day 4):

Groups will work together to create a poster that includes the following:

v      Title of your Puff Mobile

v      Names of all group members

v      Drawing of Puff Mobile Design

v      Description of scientific reasoning for design

v      Predictions for distance the Puff Mobile will travel

**I suggest having students break up the poster by giving blank sheets of paper to the group in addition to a poster board.  The reasoning behind this is that all students can be engaged in poster creation at the same time, gluing the final products to the poster board in the end. 




A Puff Mobile contest will take place in the auditorium during each class’ schedule science period.  Each group will present their poster and test their Puff Mobile-one time only!  The distance traveled will be measured, recorded on chart paper and the winning team will be rewarded. 

**In order to have a controlled amount of air for each Puff Mobile, use an aspirator.


Follow up/Data analysis:

All groups will use the compiled data from all 6th grade classes to create Microsoft Excel chart and graphs.  Students will be expected to write a report on the class results, including an analysis of their own group’s results.  Did they see the expected outcome?  What group was the most successful and why?  What do the graphs show?  The reports will be written as scientific papers and be placed in their portfolios.