There really is nothing more interesting to students of all ages than playing with magnets. No matter how old students are, the mysterious forces of attraction and repulsion are forever engaging. This lesson builds on that wonder as students attempt to create "the best" mag lev vehicles.
I begin this lesson by using the MagLev Intro PowerPoint to begin an informal discussion with students on magnetic levitation and how it is and can be applied in the world.
I purchased the materials for this activity from Kelvin. I am a big fan of giving students a task or challenge and letting them find their own path to success (or not), especially with engineering tasks. Students can use their materials in any way they think will work but they only have two potential sources of power: a burst of wind from a box fan or harnessing the power from the rails on the track (I use the Kelvin variable power source and connect it to the rails). I do keep a supply of magnets, motors and alligator clip wires available for students to use. Plus, they have access to any other supplies I have on hand such as craft sticks, foil, cups, hot glue/guns and a variety of other "garbage" for students to use as needed/desired.
I have students begin by drawing a sketch of their initial design ideas. Students build, test, tweak, test and repeat until they have a "final" project they want to test against other group designs (we test for speed).
This video depicts one student group explaining the problems they are having with their current design and describing some ideas they have to address these issues.
At some point during the "trial and error" time, students are likely to begin to become frustrated. This is a good time to implement a sharing strategy such as give an idea/get an idea. This strategy requires students to partner with another group, describe their current challenge along with what they have tried so far to address that challenge, and get some new ideas/suggestions from that other group and then flip roles. This is a great way to support students while reinforcing the value of collaboration and teamwork.
I provide students with 5-7 days to design-test-tweak-test depending on the complexity of the project and student need. I give them a projected "done by" date for final data collection to help them stay on task and motivated. I prefer that all students observe each group for the final testing so they can see how others approached the task and compare with their own design approach.