Levitation Engineers

Science 4 Inquiry Heather Miller
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Experiment/Lab Activity , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Phenomenon
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.



Students will experiment with magnets to identify magnetic properties and the differences between contact and non-contact forces.  They will use their discoveries, based on the results of their experiments, to design and build a "levitating" pencil.  The engineering design process is integrated into the lesson.

Intended Audience

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

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

Performance Expectations

MS-PS2-5 Conduct an investigation and evaluate the experimental design to provide evidence that fields exist between objects exerting forces on each other even though the objects are not in contact.

Clarification Statement: Examples of this phenomenon could include the interactions of magnets, electrically-charged strips of tape, and electrically-charged pith balls. Examples of investigations could include first-hand experiences or simulations.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to electric and magnetic fields, and limited to qualitative evidence for the existence of fields.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students begin their work with a guided exploration of magnets and their forces, including investigations into attraction, repulsion, and the strength and distance that a magnet’s force extends. They are asked to sketch what they think the magnetic field might look like around their test magnets. They then are given supplies and asked to levitate a pencil. They evaluate their experimental design through the engineering design process, including a gallery walk and feedback from other groups before submitting their final design.

MS-ETS1-4 Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The student worksheet refers to the levitating pencil as a model for a maglev train. The lesson instructions guide the students through the use of a chart to record their several designs, test results, and changes made as a result of the test results. The data generated is qualitative rather than quantitative. Students are also given the opportunity to give and receive feedback through a gallery walk before making their final iteration. The lesson as written does not specifically use the word “iteration” or “iterative”, so a teacher will need to explain this vocabulary to students, perhaps when explaining the Engineering Design Form. A "quick fix” would be to change the word “design” to the word “iteration” as the heading for the first column on the chart.

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
Students apply scientific ideas about magnetic force, attraction and repulsion, and fields, in order to design, create and test a “levitating” pencil (Note: the provided possible solution does involve the pencil tip resting against a wall). The levitating pencil is treated as an object in the lesson as written; a teacher who wanted to emphasize systems could do so by referring to the levitating pencil as a system, and asking students to identify inputs, outputs and feedback that cause the levitation system to work.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The Engineering Design Form walks students through the process of design, test, redesign. Students also redesign based on feedback and observations during a class gallery walk. The questions in the “redesign” section of the form get at the idea of modifying for improvement, as they specifically ask: “What worked? Why did this work? What didn’t work? Why didn’t this work? What could make your design better?”

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The purpose of the introductory lab is to have students discover and measure the strength and range of a magnet’s field, and to sketch what it might look like, based on their observations of the magnets’ effects on other magnets. They then apply this knowledge in the engineering activity.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The engineering activity relies on this cross-cutting concept with regard to the properties of magnets and how they are arranged. However, the lab does not overtly point this out to students, so it will be up to the teacher to help students make that connection between structure and function, based on properties of the magnets and their arrangements.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The lesson begins with a phenomenon, a video of a levitating spinning top. The lesson then guides students through activities that help them uncover core ideas by using a practice that relies on a cross-cutting concept. This builds toward the understanding of a Performance Indicator. The lesson seamlessly integrates an engineering Performance Indicator and DCI. It should be noted that the lesson is specific to magnetism, and does not include fields generated by electricity or by gravity.

  • Instructional Supports: The lesson provides students the opportunity to engage in 3-dimensional learning. Students’ prior knowledge is formatively assessed as students move into the activities. The students have an opportunity to give and receive feedback, and revise based upon that feedback, during the engineering activity. The lesson offers opportunity for differentiation both with the introductory lab, where alternate wording of questions is provided, and with the levitation lab, where suggestions are given to help groups who are struggling with the engineering problem.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The lesson provides suggestions for formative assessments. Lab sheets and sample responses are provided. A multiple choice post-lab quiz addresses the DCI and engineering practices, but not a cross-cutting concept. The lesson does not provide rubrics or scoring guidelines.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The lesson is not technologically interactive.