Balls and Tracks

The Balls and Tracks project is an engineering challenge based on the designs of a ski jump (or half-pipe) and a roller coaster. With simple pipe insulation and marbles, children create a series of games involving a ball rolling through twists and turns, just like an amusement park ride. During this process, children learn to anticipate how the ball will behave in various track shapes and configurations. They come away from these activities with an increased understanding of the forces of motion, as well as a practical sense of how the materials affect each other.

After working extensively with these (and other) materials children eventually come to know a great deal about what can and cannot be done in their medium. Although they may not be able to explain how they know what they know, their knowledge is based on direct experience with handling the materials. Similarly, in this project children develop intuitive knowledge about problem solving and working together in teams. In addition, they are asked to use words to describe what they know about how this Balls and Tracks device works.

And crucially, children are asked repeatedly in this and other Design-it projects, to put their conclusions into words -- inventing their own terms if necessary -- so as to take ownership of their learning. This is excellent preparation for more formal science or engineering studies (in school and elsewhere), which use the experimental process and rules of "evidence" to form a scientific understanding of how things in our world work.