Cross-Curricular, STEM/STEAM, CTE, Career Connections, Technology Education, Trade and Industrial, Science, Scientific and Engineering Practices
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Activity/Lab, Interactive, Lesson, Lesson Plan, Simulation, Visual Media
Middle School
Virginia Tech
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Activity/lab, Challenge, Engineering, Interactive, Lesson Plan, Physical Science, Physics, STEM Careers, Scientific Method, Stem, VT PEERS, Virginia Tech
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Education Standards

VT PEERS: Mountain Road Repair

VT PEERS: Mountain Road Repair


Lesson length: 1-2 hours

Grade level: 6-8

Students practice using the scientific method as they engineer methods to fix damaged mountain roads. Using engineering design thinking, students assess the problem(s), develop strategies for addressing them, budget for repairs, and create and test prototype solutions.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1657263. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


  • 1-inch diameter pipe insulating foam tubing (6 feet per team - total of 36 feet needed for a class set)
  • Corner pieces of foam insulated tubing
  • Marbles (2 per team)
  • Dowels of various lengths
  • Wood shims/ pieces of foam and cardboard
  • Large garbage bags
  • Masking tape
  • Paper or whiteboards for drafting plans/notes
  • Dry erase markers
  • 5- gallon buckets (mountain construction)
  • A bin for each group to collect their waste

Before Class Begins

  • Build mountains - turn buckets upside down, create tripod of dowels and tape to bottom of bucket to create “mountain peak” - add a wrap of butcher paper to round the top a bit. Place another bucket beside this structure and cover both with large, industrial grade trash bag -  voila! A mountain! See photo below for example of completed mountain. There is quite a bit of room for variety here, as mountains come in all shapes and sizes. You can reuse your mountains for each class. They will get a little worn, but that doesn't affect the lesson.
    • If you don't have enough buckets and dowels to create multiple mountains, bags can be pulled over free standing chairs, small tables, upturned trash cans and grouped together to create a "landscape" that several groups could work on together (it's easiest if each class has it's own landscape). This activity has as many possibilities as as a blanket fort creation you might make in your living room. It might also be useful to increase student connection by making these landscapes model the land where you live.
  • Prepare and assemble road parts. Start with
    • Lengths of pipe insulation cut in half lengthwise for “road” (about 3-4 foot sections)
    • Shorter complete pieces (12-18 inches) for “tunnels”
    • Halved lengthwise and whole corner pieces for “corners” and “tunnel corners”
  • Make portions of the road (pipe insulation) that are broken for every group; broken portions could be holes, obstructions, missing pieces, etc.). Tape roads with broken portions to the mountains before each class begins - these do not all have to be the same for each group - just ensure each road is "broken" enough so that a marble will not make it from the top to the bottom safely. Each group gets its own mountain with roads that need repair attached. To reset between classes, take off old roads and add new broken ones. Mountains may get a little worn, but that doesn't affect the lesson.
  • Prepare handouts:
    • What's Wrong with the Road?
    • Road Repair Proposal 
  • Set mountains up around the room so there’s space to build around each. Include "What's Wrong with the Road?" handout, plastic cup (where marble will land), plastic bucket or bowl for “waste” and roll of masking tape at each station.
  • Divide road parts into categories and arrange them on a table to serve as a "material purchasing center" for groups to use as they work:
    • Halved lengths of pipe insulation for “road” (about 3-4 foot sections)
    • Shorter complete pieces (12-18 inches) for “tunnels”
    • Halved and whole corner pieces for “corners” and “tunnel corners”
    • Wood and cardboard bits for shimming roads
  • We found this lesson worked well with 4-5 students per group.

Engineering Connections

Career & Industry Connections:

Some engineers focus on maintaining a factory or equipment and fixing things when necessary. This lesson explores the job of fixing something that isn’t working properly.  Well maintained equipment increases safety and efficiency, just like a well-maintained road is safer and easier to travel for us.  Careers related to this include accident investigation engineers, facility engineers, manufacturing engineers, and civil engineers. Engineers in these fields ask: 

  • What is happening?
  • What should be happening?
  • What is the problem? 
  • What caused the problem? 
  • How can we fix the problem (and keep it from happening again)?  

Engineers in these fields improve situations to make them safer for people, save money for their employers, and improve upon outdated systems.

VT PEERS Engineering Goals: Connecting middle school students with career engineers from local communities helps engineering become accessible to middle school students. During the VT PEERS project, engineers from local industries joined teachers to help deliver the lessons and to share with students about what their daily work was like. Together, project partners (teachers, industry engineers, and Virginia Tech representatives) worked to relay seven "take home" messages about engineering. Each lesson addresses at least one of the key points below, and those most specific to this lesson are in bold.

VT PEERS Things to Know about Engineering and Engineers 

  1. Engineering is in every community and makes a difference in people’s lives. 
  2. Everyone can learn to do engineering.
  3. Engineers are creative, curious, and imaginative.
  4. Engineers work with many types of people to understand problems and create solutions.
  5. Engineers rely on knowledge from multiple subjects to understand all they can.
  6. Solving engineering design problems requires compromise and trade-offs.
  7. Engineers view mistakes as normal and important and try to learn from them.

Look for "Ask an Engineer" ideas throughout this lesson for suggestions of questions you might ask an engineer if you have access to one.

Have your engineer (or you) share ideas of prototyping that is part of many jobs. Students can brainstorm how we use the engineering design process to troubleshoot things besides fixing roads (a broken laptop, a broken chair, perhaps something that as broken in the classroom recently).

An extension of this lesson could be practice with the Engineering Design Process. KQED Quest has a helpful video--The Engineering Design Process: A Taco Party. You could have students do another trial to implement their changes to see if they were right.

Introduction and Background Knowledge (15 min)

  • Start by discussing the VT PEERS Things to Know about Engineering and Engineers and highlight the items that will be illustrated by this lesson.  
  • Review the Scientific Method, dependent variable and independent variable. Tell the students they will be using the Scientific Method today to repair a broken mountain road. 
  • Show video, "World's Most Dangerous Roads" (6:50) from You Tube channel Curiosity, to help students begin to think about things that could be broken or dangerous about a mountain road. 
  • Talk about mountain roads in your community, if applicable. What do students notice about how they are designed? built? repaired? 

Ask an Engineer: Do you use the Scientific Method at your job? How? What are some examples of independent and dependent variables you have studied?

Observing the Problem (10 min)

  • Divide students into groups of 4-5 and present them with their mountain and its broken roads (where the marble does not land safely in the cup). 
  • Students participate in the first step of the scientific method by observing their road and its malfunction. Distribute marbles and "What’s Wrong with the Road?" handouts and tell students to use these to test and observe--they can place the marble at any point along the mountain road but are not allowed to make any changes to the mountain during this time. Discuss the dependent and independent variables--the marble making it safely down the road is the dependent variable and the problems and fixes are the independent variables. Students complete the worksheet, identifying independent variables and thinking about how these might link to actual problems with a road.
    • Hole in the road = pothole
    • Side of the road is missing = missing guardrail
    • Tunnel is blocked = something blocking the road
    • Something blocking the road = mudslide
  • Ask students to experiment with their broken road for a few minutes to understand the various places it might not be working safely for their marble. They should note each spot that needs fixing - this is an opportunity to talk about the variables in this process (dependent, independent, and constant).

Forming Hypothesis/Proposing Solution (10 min)

  • Distribute the "Road Repair Proposal" handout. 
  • Based on their observations of their specific breaks, students make decisions about what materials they will need to fix all the broken portions of their road. Students should consider cost of the materials as they are completing their Road Repair Proposals. 
  • You can set a budget for your teams or allow them to decide what they need and cost it out themselves. Either way, have groups ready to report out their budgets and how decisions (trade offs) were made throughout their repair planning and implementation.

Testing the Hypothesis (30 min)

  • Distribute materials based on students’ Road Repair Proposals and allow students to fix broken portions of their roads. The goal is to have a working road where the marble lands safely in the cup. 
  • Students should keep track of waste materials that they did not use on their reporting sheets, and can gather additional materials if they need them.
  • Waste materials are to be gathered in a bowel or box available to each team. Every team should keep track of what they take off and don't use in repairing their roads. No materials are allowed to be attached to the mountain without a purpose (taping or attaching pieces that do not reinforce the road construction are not allowed). Discussion of the cost of waste and waste removal can be part of reporting out and conversation after the activity.

Making Conclusions (15 min)

  • Once groups have working mountain roads (or not), congratulate everyone on their hard work troubleshooting and working to make safer roads. Discuss what worked well and what didn’t.

Ask an Engineer: Please share about a time that you made an adjustment or a repair at your job. How long did the process take? What were the challenges or costs? What were the solutions and successes?

  • Have students calculate the total amount of money they spent on materials, and make note of their wasted supplies (anything they tried and decided didn’t work or supplies that they purchased and didn’t use). How much extra money did they spend? Discuss waste and the cost that oftentimes accompanies getting rid of waste. 
  • Start a conversation about the safety and durability of different materials. Did groups take these into consideration? Point out that groups who spent the least on fixing roads may have cut corners on safety and might face more repairs again soon. Discuss the decisions that go into making material choices. 

Ask an Engineer: How does your company make decisions about which materials to use and how much to spend? When is it important to make sure you aren’t cutting corners on cost?

  • Students enjoy showing their fixed roads so if there's time, have the class circulate to watch how each road was improved and allow groups the opportunity to share their process - the good, the bad and the ugly!

Reflection and Assessment (10 min)

Redirect students to the VT PEERS Things to Know about Engineering and Engineers covered in this lesson. Discuss how the activities today illustrate the highlighted points. Did they feel like engineers at all today? When? 

  • Engineering is in every community and makes a difference in people’s lives. 
  • Everyone can learn to do engineering.
  • Engineers view mistakes as normal and important and try to learn from them.

Here are some potential questions for measuring learning with an exit ticket or discussion: 

  • Write something you learned about engineering work that you didn’t know before.
  • How and why might an engineers use the Scientific Method?
  • Tell about a mistake your group made today. How did you fix it? Did you learn anything from it?