Design a Paper Car: Exploring the Scientific Method

Submitted by: Yvonne Duncan, El Cajon Valley High School, based on an original activity presented by an Advisor through the Arizona MESA (Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement) Program – Author unknown
Initial Publication Date: June 9, 2009 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


This is an engineering design project used to help students practice teamwork and to give them an opportunity to experience engineering practices, such as teamwork and problem-solving.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

  • Students will be able to learn that the scientific method is not a linear process.
  • Students will be able to learn how to measure speed and time, and use them to calculate speed.
  • Students will be able to use the scientific method to design a paper car that will travel on its own.
  • Students will be able to work as a team and solve a design problem using limited materials

Context for Use

  • Approximate class size: 15 – 28
  • Lab/engineering design project
  • Time frame: 3 to 4 - 90 minute block periods
  • This unit is best taught at the beginning of the course
  • Students need to have teamwork skills, familiarity with cutting paper, drawing, measuring, and using tape to build the car
  • This is lesson requires a lot of activity space and teacher facilitation - students should be given the opportunity to experience this twice. Additional contraints may be added depending on the experience level of your students. Some students may be very intitimdated and will need models of cars. You may also opt to allow them the opportunity to research on-line or design a "practice" car before they use the required materials.

Description and Teaching Materials

I start this activity by telling the students that they must create a car using the materials below. The car must be able to travel down a ramp of about 7cm in height.

After one class period, many have been able to make a car. I have them repeat the process, by tying it back to the scientific method and having the students write down the steps, then committing to a procedure as written below.

Purpose: To apply the scientific method to a new car design problem.

Problem: I have the students state the problem they are trying to solve in their own words

Hypothesis: Use an "If ... then" statement. (Show cause and effect related to the problem)

Four index cards
Four paper clips
Tape (30 cm)
Scissors (2)
Ruler (1)
Stopwatch (1) – if the third part of the activity is used

Design a procedure to test the hypothesis:

Record the steps under "Procedure" and number them.
When you conduct your experiment, record your data in the "Data" section. You may use tables and diagrams. Record observations such as: shape, actual sizes (length, width, height), and how what you change affects ths structure, direction, or movement of the car.

Analyze the data:
Compare the data – look for patterns, explain what the the patterns mean with respect to how your car is able to move

Draw a conclusion
I have the students restate their hypothesis, summarize what they did, then generate ideas if they could test it again.

Sometimes, I have them take the second car and add a new challenge. They must get the car to travel on a flat surface for one meter and they must calculate the speed.

  1. Set up space on the floor or table to provide a one meter track for your car.
  2. Start the car and the timer at the same time. You will time how long it takes to your car to travel one meter.
  3. Repeat step two five times. Record all data in Data Table One.
  4. Create a "track of space" in the hall. Do what modifications it takes to travel the distance of the hall. Record in Data Table Two. Taking the same car, time the distance the car travels in one minute (60 seconds).
  5. Record the data in Data Table 3.
  6. Finally, with the same car, time the distance the car travels across the entire hall (or the greatest distance it can travel.

(Repeat this table three times)

Trial # Distance (m) Time(s) Other Observations

Trial # Distance (m) Time(s) Other Observations

Then I use this as an opportunity to introduce them to graphs, and I have them graph the data.

  1. Compare (and contrast) the distances from Data Table One to Data Table Two.
  2. Compare the times from the tables, do you notice any patterns or trends?
  3. Using all four of the data, what trends did you notice in the speed of the car throughout the lab?
  4. Graph the data for Data Table One, Three, and Four. (Paste the graphs in the lab book.)
  5. What trends do you notice in the three graphs? How could you use the graphs to interpret the rate the car travels?

Following the same method as before.

I close each day with a discussion of a step that we spent a lot time on, for example, the first day might close with a "ticket out" on problem-solving within the team. The second day, I might ask what are the requirements for a hypothesis. The third day, I usually ask about data. If it takes all week, then the third day is about analyzing data, and the fifth day is about writing conclusions.
Lab Book Rubric (Microsoft Word 39kB Jun9 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students will need team-building activities prior to this lesson. As the teacher you will need to facilitate a discussion to the process they went through to build the car. The discussion should included successes, challenges, and how they overcame those challenges. The discussion also needs to explicitly ties back to the steps of the scientific method, such as the problem they tried to solve, what their hypothesis(es) was(were) and how the tested those hypotheses. These students will need to repeat the process with fresh materials. Additional constraints may be added depending on the experience level of your students. Some students may be very intimidated and will need models of cars. For the first time, you may also opt to allow them the opportunity to research on-line or design a "practice" car before they use the required materials. For the second trial, actually have them commit to their test by writing procedure, then actually follow it and record their results. This is the most frustrating steps for some students, they don't want to document their work, they just want to continue building without making sure that they are actually testing their hypothesis.


I have used a lab book rubric to assess the evidence of the scientific method being used: problem, procedure, hypothesis, data (diagrams must be included), analysis, and conclusion. Please see the rubric above.

References and Resources

Arizona MESA - Link to the program of the "Advisor" who originally introduced this activity

MESA USA - This site is a link to all of the MESA Programs in the United States. MESA, Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement, is a pre-college program which encourages and supports educationally disadvantaged students to pursue a bachelor's degree in the math, science, or engineering fields.

Paper Car Contest - This is a related activity that I found ( I have not used this activity)
Description: This project involves the construction of paper cars, the racing of the cars in the home classroom to gather data, and sharing data with other sites. Students will create a car according to specifications, conduct races, record race data, and prepare data tables and spreadsheets that communicate the results of the races.