Balloon Racers

Anyone who teaches middle school students knows they have a lot of energy, and a lot of hot air. Why not put it to use? In this activity, students will be challenged to modify a simple plastic balloon racer to travel farther and faster. Students begin by asking questions and making observations to understand how the racers work. Racers can be found here.  Find and print my student form here.

During the activity, students make three separate modifications to improve distance and speed. Once they’ve completed the activity, students will debate the possibility of wind-powered cars and wind turbines as a local energy source.

Introducing students to the engineering design process early in the year is exciting and engaging. This activity is much more than a simple design challenge, which often doesn’t give students the opportunity to make revisions. In this learning experience, students are encouraged to explore many of the science and engineering practices to grow their understanding of force and motion and engineering content. Their learning is enhanced by providing opportunities for them to argue with evidence as they debate the pros and cons of using wind-powered cars and wind turbines as a local, renewable energy source.

Performance Expectations  

MS-ETS1-1 Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.

Clarification Statement:  none

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is qualitative, as it is limited to observations.

After determining how the balloon racer works and explaining Newton’s Third Law in their own words, students determine how the racer could be modified to allow it to go farther and faster.

Students gather baseline data by running their racers before modifications. Students measure distance in centimeter and speed in seconds, then calculate speed.

MS-ETS1-2 Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: Assessment will be qualitative based on effort made, and quantitative based on data collected. No student will be penalized for the car’s decreases in distance and time.

Students brainstorm ways their individual racers could be modified to increase distance and decrease speed. Making one modification at a time, students retest, collecting data from distance, time, and speed.

MS-ETS1-3 Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

Students graph baseline data and data from all three modifications, as well as complete analysis questions focusing on independent and dependent variables.

MS-ETS1-4 Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.

Clarification Statement: none

Students choose their best modified model that will be entered into a class contest after school. Students are blind drawn and placed in a bracket playoff system. 

All students take their balloon racers home.

Science and Engineering Practices

This activity allows students to apply basic physics principles (Newton’s Laws) to a simple toy, a balloon racer, to modify and re-engineer it to make it travel faster and farther. Students must determine how the vehicle works before making modifications one at a time

Disciplinary Core Ideas

The Science and Engineering Process Skills takes students through the process of design, test, and redesign. Students also redesign based on group members’ feedback and observations. The questions in the form’s “redesign” section address the idea of modifying for improvement, as they specifically ask: “What worked? Why did this work? What didn’t work? Why didn’t this work? What could make your design better?”

Crosscutting Concepts

Montgomery County, Indiana, finds itself in a very unique situation. We have a solar park, but a company wanting to build wind turbines has met with opposition. With this activity, students will direct their attention from the wind-powered cars to the use of wind power as a local energy source or a potential source of power for vehicles. The Argument Driven Inquiry (ADI) format will be used for this phase of the activity.

This learning experience is very relevant, as the conversation about using wind power is actually occurring in their community.

This is just one way of engaging students in the practice of asking questions early in the year. After each modification, I challenge students to ask themselves at least two questions about their work: What went well? What is something else you could try? What suggestion would you like with the class? How does this process of modifying an original design apply to the real world? In what types of careers might this process be used regularly?



Shannon Hudson is a science teacher at Crawfordsville Middle School in Crawfordsville, IN. She currently teaches four levels of science classes, including sixth- and seventh-grade advanced science, sixth-grade inclusion co-teaching, and seventh-grade regular science. The school’s adopted curriculum allows for integrated, modified problem based learning (PBL) instruction.

Hudson has a Bachelor’s degree from Purdue University, with a concentration in elementary education, junior high science, and gifted and talented education, and a Master’s degree in Education from Indiana Wesleyan University. Hudson has taken many courses throughout the years at a variety of universities to further her studies in science education. 

This article was featured in the September issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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2 Responses to Balloon Racers

  1. Jen Gutierrez says:

    This is an awesome lessson friend! I want to come join your class!!

  2. nicole lutes says:

    Hi Shannon,
    This sounds like a great activity to implement in the classroom, I love the idea! My name is Nicole and I am an Elementary Education student at Wartburg College. In one of my classes we talked about early engineers and introducing the idea of student engineers to students as early on as kindergarteners. My question to you is, do you think this lesson could be used in a lower elementary classroom setting? If so, how would you modify it?
    Pre service teacher
    Wartburg College

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