Demolishing Traditional Approaches to Science Instruction

NSTA Science Scope Stephanie Lund, Sarah Saltmarsh, Bradley Bostick
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Article , 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.




In this activity, students use scientific experimentation and elements of the engineering design process to determine a solution to the problem of safely demolishing a football stadium.  Students collect and analyze data as they explore variables affecting the behavior of a pendulum on a block tower. They draw conclusions about the safest way to accomplish the task, and share their findings as a claim-and-evidence email to the stadium owner. Please note this resource is not free; it currently costs $0.99.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Middle School
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
Access Restrictions

Available for purchase - The right to view, keep, and/or download material upon payment of a one-time fee.

Performance Expectations

MS-ETS1-3 Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students are asked to determine the effects of bob volume (“size”), angle of swing, and bob mass, on the ability to remove the top five sections of a block tower. They analyze their collected data to determine the best solution for achieving the task, then share their findings as a claim-evidence paragraph. The supporting materials ( include a lab sheet which students can use to structure their data collection. Teachers should note the possible confusion about the word “size”, which can refer to either volume or mass. In the lesson, it refers to volume, but the lesson is not clear about how to control for mass while changing the volume. Washers are mentioned in the materials list, so it is recommended that they be added to the small and the medium bobs to make the total mass the same for all three bobs during the “size” (volume) test.

MS-PS2-1 Apply Newton’s Third Law to design a solution to a problem involving the motion of two colliding objects.

Clarification Statement: Examples of practical problems could include the impact of collisions between two cars, between a car and stationary objects, and between a meteor and a space vehicle.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to vertical or horizontal interactions in one dimension.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The purpose of the experiment is to determine how to best achieve the desired result when a pendulum bob collides with a block tower. Newton’s Third Law is not overtly mentioned. The lesson writers recommend moving on to forces after this lesson, by building on students’ observations that greater masses seem to cause more damage. This lesson could also work well after students understand how forces work. The teacher would in that case need to ask students to make the connection between the activity and the Law, perhaps by asking students to use a force diagram as part of their explanation. The teacher could also change the culminating Claim-Evidence email into a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning email, and students could use the Third Law and concepts about forces to explain why their solution works.

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
The lesson was designed to focus on this Practice, in particular for English Language Learners. Sentence stem handouts are given to each table to help students discuss what their graphs are showing and how that relates to the purpose of the investigation. Three discussions (one after each variable change) allow students to practice the language of analysis. Suggestions are also included for teacher questions to elicit analysis as students discuss. Students orally rehearse their culminating email with each other, to increase confidence with content-specific language. The provided rubric includes a section on “language of analysis” so students will understand what is expected as they engage in this Practice.

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

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students collect data about variables involved in the wrecking ball model, in order to decide how to best solve the problem of demolishing just the top five layers of the structure.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Though this core idea is central to explaining why the wrecking ball acts as it does, the language of forces is not part of this activity. The lesson suggests using it as an introduction to the connection between mass and forces, based on student observations. The lesson could also function as a culminating lesson on forces, if students are encouraged to explain their results. See Tips for the Performance Expectation, above.

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The lesson spends some up-front time helping students to review ideas of independent and dependent variables, as a process for collecting useful data. The analysis discussion with associated vocabulary can also be considered a process for evaluating a solution.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The purpose of the activity is to determine the best structure and method of functioning of a model wrecking ball, in order to achieve a specific task. The words “structure” and “function” are not mentioned in the lesson, so a teacher will need to point out that students are changing the ball’s structure (volume, angle of string, and mass) in order to make it function a certain way (knock off the top five levels of the block tower).

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The lesson begins with a discussion of pendulums in everyday life. Students are encouraged to build off of their personal experiences to identify common characteristics of pendulums. The students are asked to use pendulum phenomena to solve a design problem. The connection between the engineering and content core ideas could be strengthened by incorporating more of the language and concepts of forces into the lesson. The emphasis on engineering core ideas, and on analysis practices, is particularly strong. A teacher will need to highlight the role of the cross-cutting concept in the students’ ability to complete the activity.

  • Instructional Supports: The framing problem is relevant, as building demolition is likely a familiar idea to students, even if they have not seen it first-hand. Links to video clips are provided. Students have many opportunities to express their ideas through graphs, small-group discussions supported with sentence stems, partner practice, and written “emails”. Differentiation is addressed throughout the lesson, with many ideas included for when and where to scaffold, and possible independent work. The lesson was designed for ELL students, and includes supports for both speaking (sentence stems, repetition of task, and teacher questions) and writing (graphic organizer and oral practice).

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Opportunities for formative assessment are many, including journal responses, student graphs, student design of experiments, and table discussions. The provided supports help to ensure that language acquisition is not a barrier to completing these tasks. The included summative rubric mostly addresses the Practices of analyzing data and communicating information. It does not address the engineering core idea of using systematic processes, instead focusing on the students’ ability to define the problem. Core ideas from physical sciences are not addressed, nor are any cross-cutting concepts.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: - none -