Marble obstacle course projects are an engaging way to help students develop their understanding of the concepts of force, motion, inertia, gravity and balance. From simple courses made from household objects to more complex machines involving mechanical parts, marble obstacle course projects are adaptable to students of several grade levels and abilities. Incorporate marble obstacle courses into physics, engineering or integrated science classrooms.
Marble runs are suitable for elementary and middle school students because they introduce concepts like gravity, speed and incline without complex design challenges. The goal of a marble run is to design and build a series of tubes or tracks to carry a marble from a high point to a low point. Throughout the course, students must add obstacles that change the marble's direction or affect the marble's speed to keep the marble on track. One way to approach a marble run project is to provide students with a piece of wood or cardboard to mount their materials. Students collect cardboard tubes, small pieces of wood, Popsicle sticks or other items they believe will help them design a track to take their marble from the top of the mount to the bottom at a reasonable speed.
Flat Marble Courses
Flat marble courses are designed to act like interactive mazes. Students can create marble mazes using a simple wooden picture frame. Students designate one corner as the starting point and the opposite corner as the end point, where students puncture the cardboard backing of the frame to create a small hole. Student glue or staple barriers like straws, Popsicle sticks or dowels to their frame to create a maze for the marble. Students can also experiment with more challenging obstacles, like a small incline for the marble to climb or a speed bump made from a stack of toothpicks. Once the mazes are finished, students experiment with one another's mazes and discuss the ways that the obstacles created particularly difficult challenges for the marble.
Experimenting with Friction
Older students who understand the basic concepts of force and motion are equipped to incorporate additional levels of complexity to their marble obstacle courses. One way to challenge more advanced students is to instruct them to experiment with different ways to create friction in their obstacle course to slow down their marble without completely stopping it. After students create a freestanding course using tubes, inclines and planks, ask them to time their marble as it navigates the course. Challenge groups to modify their courses to add 10, 20 and 30 seconds to the time it takes the marble to navigate the course. Students can experiment with adding texture to their inclines or requiring marbles to pass through a paddle wheel.
Develop advanced students' engineering skills with a marble pinball project. Pinball marble courses are more challenging to design because they require students to develop a mechanism for launching the marble through the course. The courses can be built onto a piece of flat plywood surrounding by a wooden frame to contain the marble. The simplest option for a launching mechanism is a lever that students activate by pushing down the elevated end, but more advanced designs include spring-loaded options with a bit more force. Student include funnels, inclines and barriers in their design and take turns exploring designs to see which machines keep the marbles in play the longest.