Mousetrap Car Project

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Type Category
Instructional Materials
Experiment/Lab Activity
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This is an engineering activity that requires students to build a mousetrap car based on certain constraints. Constraints include students having a virtual budget that they use to buy approved parts for their car, the car having specified maximum dimensions, and a minimum required distance of 3 meters that the car must travel. The activity does a great job of requiring students to consider trade offs, design a solution, test their design, make changes in their design, and then make a final decision about their solution based on data and performance.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • High School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

HS-ETS1-3 Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The activity includes all the steps of the engineering design process. As such, students are guided during the process of choosing between trade offs, testing their designs, making revisions, and selecting a final design.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
This activity requires students to test their design, collect data on its performance, and use that student-generated evidence to help in the redesign process.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Page 6 of the activity contains a “decision matrix” that requires students to rate their solutions according to a list of trade offs. This matrix helps students make decisions about what will be most important in the final design of their car. There is one typo on the matrix. “Aesthetics” is listed twice. It will be helpful to add “power” to the decision matrix with a clarification statement of “Does the design have enough power to make the car travel the required distance?”. In addition, students should be made to rank the items on this list from most important to least important.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource was not designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Energy, and the conservation of energy, are clearly major underlying scientific concepts for this activity, but the main focus is on engineering. Students will benefit most from this activity if it is performed after energy has been discussed in class since conservation of energy is fundamentally what is responsible for the car moving regardless of what design students create.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The activity strongly engages students in the three dimensions. The activity is focused on the practice of designing a solution to a real world problem and likewise integrates seamlessly with the disciplinary core idea of optimizing a design solution as it requires students to go through the engineering iteration process to make improvements in their original design and to test them to see if the changes are really better. The one area where it could be stronger is in working with the cross cutting concept of energy. As mentioned in the comments section of the cross cutting concept, energy is the science at the heart of the project, but it isn’t explicitly discussed. The cross cutting concept could be more fully integrated if students were required to at least discuss energy changes that take place within their car. It is suggested this activity be part of a larger unit where students are evaluating the science of cars and their impact on our culture and environment.

  • Instructional Supports: This activity has students designing their own mousetrap cars, making revisions, testing their designs, and selecting their best solution based on their own test data. It also allows students to express and explore their own ideas, and they do have to explain their designs and why they chose that design, but it doesn’t do a great job of allowing students to respond to feedback. Instructors should meet with the groups and have discussions with each group. In these discussions, each group member should be required to respond to teacher feedback about the design. Pages 11-13 in the handout are an Engineering Log, and those pages will aid in discussions with the instructor. Likewise, the groups should exchange feedback with other groups, and the journals should be used to record the feedback. Another area that needs improvement is in building progressions. This activity does not explicitly identify the prior learning that is needed or how it should built upon. To meet this aspect, an instructor should make sure their students know about the engineering design process and the associated vocabulary. In addition, instructors should know that conservation of energy is being used in a real life scenario as students develop their own way to change one form of energy into another (and exactly how that happens is left up to the students). The activity could be made more authentic if students were told they want to make cars that can go further or faster on the same amount of fuel, and rather than using gasoline, we are using the spring in the mousetrap. The idea is to see how to improve the efficiency of cars in general.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The activity elicits direct and observable evidence of students engaging with the practice, disciplinary core idea, and cross cutting concept, and those three dimensions are blended together in the lesson. The engineering design process, especially the redesign and testing portion, is a kinesthetic way to perform formative assessment. The lesson helps guide students with a grading rubric. In addition, numerous labeled diagrams help students understand any terms they may not be familiar with.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: - none -