Exploring Magnetic Levitation

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SWBAT test a conceptual model to explore how magnetic potential energy can be used as a fossil-fuel-free alternative to train transportation.

Big Idea

Watch as your students experience the magic of magnetics while exploring a futuristic transportation modality.


10 minutes

Looking for a cool way to get the students thinking about the transportation of the future? This lesson uses a wide variety of strategies to help students understand how the future of transportation engineering includes some really cool science concepts. 

The Engage section begins with a review of the difference between potential and kinetic energy. My strategies include Think Pair Share, a Scientific Phenomena discussion, and a Using Demonstration strategy.

In the Explore section, I use a variety of reading and writing strategies. I use Partner Read as a way to support student reading of technical information. There is nothing like a good graphic organizer to help organize information so as students read, they complete a graphic organizer. 

I use a vocabulary strategy called the Word Wall. My students read articles twice. The first time is to seek out unfamiliar words. Science reading is vastly different from their ELA reading and using a Word Wall helps my students learn the words and then use the same words in their writing. I like to pair a reading assignment with a video to add interest and information. The graphic organizer is a handy way to organize the information from both sources. 

There are two parts to the Explain Section. In Explain: the Design Problem I use a strategy called Understanding Engineering Models as students consider how Maglev trains can be tested. I use a Classroom Manipulation strategy to give my students hands-on experience with physical models. 

The Explain: Finding the Best Solution section, contains strategies supporting students through the engineering design process. One strategy is called Supporting Generating Design Ideas. Another called Promoting Persevering Thorough Failure, helps students understand the iterative process of design. In addition, students use a strategy called Pattern Awareness as they analyze data. 

The Evaluation section discusses my formative and summative assessment. My evaluation strategies include a Formal Scientific Conclusion. I also use a Design Test Checklist as a strategy to help students self-evaluate

Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) has been my business partner in this activity. My community is a close commute to Chicago and the light rail provider, Metra is a common way for families to get to downtown. My strategy is to introduce a design problem. I ask the students to consider the year 2040. "Wouldn't it be cool if a Maglev train could take you to Chicago?" 


10 minutes

I start with the following questions in a think-pair-share strategy because I know my students were taught energy transfers in the 7th grade. Students will remember different material and my intention is to give them the opportunity to remind one another of content and the activities associated with the information. In addition, as I walk around, I want to assess misconceptions of students.  Having a discussion also activates thinking (remembering is a "type" of thinking, listening to new ideas and integrating that into personal thinking can create dissonance, provoke questions, and deepen understanding.)

I ask, "What is the difference between potential and kinetic energy? Give examples of kinetic and potential energy." 

Students complete the prompt by themselves and then pair up to discuss their answers. We share as a class as a review of energy transfer. My strategy is called Scientific Phenomenon Discussion. There have been times when I have in my arsenal a couple of demonstrations so the students can experience energy transfers. I refer to my demonstrations if I need to re-teach a concept.  Check out my Kinetic and Potential Energy Lesson for a more thorough introduction to magnetic potential energy. 


45 minutes

I use science articles as a strategy for exploring magnetic levitation trains. My intention is to promote technical reading. I like to integrate Common Core Reading Standard 6-8-Reading Science and Technical Subjects. 

 I use any recent article about MagLev trains. The article I used for this lesson is called, Look, Ma No wheels! How maglev trains reach 500kph. I try to use contemporary articles if they are available. My back up if I do not find an article is magnetic levitation trains on How Stuff Works. I use a Partner Read strategy whenever students read technical articles because the students can help one another. The students complete a shoulder to shoulder read and fill in Train Article Graphic Organizer together. 

I ask students to read the article at least twice. The first time they are looking for unfamiliar words. I use a strategic visual vocabulary enhancer called the Word Wall. I ask students to determine the words they might not know and alert me to the words. My purpose is to formatively assess group work and to collect words for my Word Wall. I use a whole class discussion strategy to allow the students the opportunity to share what they know. In the Classroom Video: Word Wall, I explain how the Word Wall is a reading and writing reference. With a visible reference, students use the Word Wall words in their writing. I require three Word Wall words in the summaries. The Word Wall dramatically improved the quality of student writing because they are using specific vocabulary in their writing. 

In addition to a science article, I show a movie about MagLev trains. My strategy is to compare and contrast information gained from a movie and the article.


I use a graphic organizer as a strategy for organizing information from the article and the movie. Students complete the graphic organizer, and write a summary in relation to three questions about a Maglev train, "How does it work?" "How will it impact our environment?" and "How will it impact our economy?" Because this is a science article, I ask students to use statistics and facts as evidence of understanding. The students will use the graphic organizer later in the lesson to complete the conclusion. Depending upon the article, the questions on the graphic organizer require inferencing skills. 

A benefit of this section is the ability to allow the students to use Science Practice #8: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information. Students "Critically read scientific texts adapted for classroom use to determine the central ideas and/or obtain scientific and/or technical information to describe patterns in and/or evidence about the natural and designed world(s)."

Explain: The Design Problem

45 minutes

I begin by introducing the Design Problem. I say, "If Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) were to consider building a Maglev train, they would need some input about design issues. Our task is to design a method of using magnetic potential energy to propel a cab down a track.

Using the Science Discovery MagLev Train Kit, my strategy is to test a Maglev model. Before the students begin the hands-on experience, I use the strategy Understanding Engineering Models. I ask the students, "Why would engineers use a model?"  This important question allows students the opportunity to understand how the model mimics some of the scientific concepts used in real magnetic levitation trains. The models we use in class have real world applications. 

The students then build the MagLev Train using the kits. There is an instructional sheet included in the kit. It is easy and fun for kids to build.  The kits use contact cement and precision is necessary for the "cab" of the train to run along the tracks. We built six tracks for each of my tables.

My strategy includes manipulating physical models to enhance the understanding of science concepts. When the students initially get their hands on the material, there is a moment of disbelief.  Some students need additional explanation to help them understand that the two magnets are repelling one another. In my Classroom Video Manipulation Strategy, students are working on testing the models in an effort to move the cab across the track. 

Step 2: Design the investigation.  I support my students in posing testable questions and determining investigations to help answer questions. Using a Maglev Template, students determine a design problem and then test it. Students test the magnitude of potential energy that can best propel the cab across the tracks. Students use Science Practice #3:  Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. Students, "Plan an investigation individually and collaboratively, and in the design: identify independent and dependent variables and controls, what tools are needed to do the gathering, how measurements will be recorded, and how many data are needed to support a claim."

 Check out the students Testing Maglev Trains in the video below. 



Explain: Finding the Best Solution

45 minutes

Step 3. Test the number of magnets that best propels the cab to the end of the track: Testing Maglev Trains. The students complete a data table. I ask them to quantify the magnitude of magnets on the data table.  As a class we discuss the shapes of the magnets and their different strengths. Science Practice #3 is reinforced as students "conduct an investigation and/or evaluate and/or revise the experimental design to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence that meet the goals of the investigation."

I use an important strategy called Supporting Generating Design Ideas. Because of their enthusiasm for the hands-on component of the lesson, students need help deliberately developing and testing design ideas. I offer small groups of students the opportunity to record their design ideas. 

An important part of the plan is the flexibility of changing the design ideas. Students find in their tests the different combinations that work best. They want to use the prior tests in an effort to find the best design solution. I allow them to determine how flexibility can improve design ideas after a deliberately tested idea. In Classroom Video: Supporting Generating Design Ideas, I explain how I use this strategy to help students understand the engineering design process. 

Some tracks worked really well, others not so well. I use a strategy called Promoting Perseverance Through Failure. I ask the students, "Why is failure a good thing in this activity?" In my Classroom Video: Promoting Persevering Through Failure, students discuss the importance of failure. One of the great things about this strategy is that students do not fake results or cheat in an effort to get the "right" answer. 

Working with the tracks, balance is an issue. The tracks that did not run well became an different engineering design problem. How can we use magnetic energy to control the cab across the track? Students use Practice #1 Asking Questions and Defining Problems as they "define a design problem that can be solved through the development of a process and includes multiple criteria and constraints, including scientific knowledge that may limit possible solutions."

Students think and test ways to change the tracks to be successful. To help solve the problem, students taped magnets along the outside of the rails to help balance the cab. 

Science Practice #6,  Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions is important. Students write qualitative observations. I ask the students to make observations in an attempt to fail. My intention is for the students to make changes based upon the trials. The qualitative observations will be used to defend a position later in the lesson.  Students need to "Apply scientific ideas, principles, and/or evidence to construct, revise and/or use an explanation for real-world phenomena, examples, or events."

Finally Science Practice #4, Analyzing and Interpreting Data becomes essential as students use a strategy of Pattern Analysis in a section of the Maglev Template called Qualitative Observations: Look for Patterns. I ask the students to look for common problems and record the issue and the trail they recorded the observation. My intention is to support connecting ideas and finding patterns among data points. In addition, this section is used as a way to organize information for the formal writing conclusion. 


10 minutes

Most of my assessment is formative. Walking around the room with a stamp and stamp pad, I stamp the correct responses to give my students immediate feedback. In addition it allows me to know how they are progressing in their learning and who needs scaffolding. By stamping, I keep track of what I have graded. 

The students explain what happened in their lab.  The class discusses the model and connects the science content to authentic problems, "Would there be the same problems in testing a real train?"

My evaluation strategy is a formal scientific conclusion. The students write the Student Train Conclusion to describe the observations and to make suggestions to adult designers. I support student effort in using precise vocabulary and I give them words to use. The conclusion supports student understanding of how to develop science models and the usefulness of models. 

My intention is to authentically report data in an effort to offer suggestions to solve the design problem. The formal Three Student Conclusion Samples is a summative assessment. I demand formal writing including complete sentences, correct grammar, spelling, etc. I use the Common Core Informational rubric as my guide. to support student understanding of the requirements, the class creates a Design Test Checklist of learning goals. The students have completed the activity and I like to get their input on how to assess learning.