Engineering for Motion: Students Design “Newton Vehicles”

8th gr scienceThe three Laws of Motion formalized in the late 1600s by Sir Isaac Newton have intrigued scientists and curious students for centuries, and were the inspiration for a recent Mount Madonna middle school physics project. Under the guidance of science teacher Nicole Silva, eighth grade students created vehicles that demonstrated these Newtonian principles.

Working in with a partner or individually, and using material of their choice, students designed a vehicle that could travel either through the air, across the ground or by water. To meet the project requirements, the vehicle had to be able to travel forward at least one and one half meters without deviating from its intended course by more than a meter. It also needed an “engine source” to propel and initiate its motion (student energy and gravity were not allowed).

8th gr science“While it has certain parameters the project is completely open-ended in terms of how or what the student builds,” said Silva. “It is always an exciting and creative process when the students get to see all of the ideas each of the students come to class with. They get to experience the process of designing, redesigning, testing and presenting their project as well as those of their classmates. It brings physics and engineering to life.”

Sara Bautista and Aria Huth made a fast-moving land vehicle using a cardboard box, rubber bands, jar lids and wooden dowels. Their design went 2.8 meters in just 1.8 seconds! Classmate Nadia 8th gr scienceRassech, constructed a larger-than-average vehicle from cardboard pasta boxes, paper cones, Styrofoam balls covered in tape, wooden dowels, aluminum foil, and powered by an inflated balloon bladder.

Classmates Mia Richards and Naia Skogerson built “Frankenmeter,” using a mousetrap, wheels made of CDs (with edges covered with tape to add friction and make it go faster and further), wooden dowels, string, tape and hot glue. With the rubber band wound tight, and the trap spring set, once released, the spring action propelled the vehicle forward 2.25 meters along the sidewalk!

8th gr scienceAmi Bharghavan and Ronan Lee’s air and balloon-powered “Landshark” – created with a paper milk carton, cardboard spools, a straw and toothpicks, travelled 1.7 meters in its test run. Classmate Kira Kaplan’s rubber-band powered Lego vehicle was close behind, with a distance of 1.5 meters.

As they took turns presenting to their classmates, students described the development of their models, the challenges they encountered, and how these failures helped them to innovate and come up with modifications that made their vehicles work better.

8th gr science“My vehicle, ‘Failure #12,’ went half a meter on its first run, a meter on its second and 1.2 meters on the third try,” said student Riley Wagner. “It’s hard to be an engineer.”

“I enjoy incorporating the Newton vehicle project into the eighth grade science curriculum,” acknowledged Silva, “because it is a student-driven project. When students are allowed open-ended inquiries, it allows them to be creative and think out of the box. They get to invent, create, test and actually apply the physics concepts they are 8th gr sciencelearning in class.”


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Nestled among the redwoods on 355 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a community of learners dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.