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Soft Landing

In this middle school module, students devise a way to protect an astronaut during a landing by designing and testing a capsule for a spacecraft. As part of the design challenge, students design a drop tower and control circuit to test their spacecraft capsule designs. As students work to solve the design problem, they develop a deep understanding of the forces involved in safely landing a spacecraft. Students also develop an initial understanding of electricity and magnetism as they design and test an electromagnetic release system for the drop tower. Students test their ideas and assumptions, and consider alternative approaches to optimize their spacecraft capsule and drop tower designs. This egg-drop challenge enhances the traditional focus of the egg drop by incorporating an electromagnetic release system that is built into a drop tower fixture.

NGSS addressed by this module:
MS-ETS1-4   MS-PS2-1   MS-PS2-3   MS-PS3-1

Grade Band: 4-5

Watch the Video

Engineering Design in the Classroom: Soft Landing

Download the Lessons

Entire Unit: Soft Landing
DAYS 1–10: Soft Landing Teacher Handbook Download

DAY 1: What Happens When a Spacecraft Lands on Earth?
Students are introduced to the design problem: create a large-scale drop tower and spacecraft capsule, capable of transporting an entire crew (six people) back to Earth. Download

DAY 2: Reduce Force Applied on a Spacecraft on Impact with Earth
Students investigate how an impact graph changes when objects with different masses are dropped from different heights. Students use these ideas to further define the criteria and constraints of the design problem. Download

DAY 3: Design a Drop Tower to Test Spacecraft Capsules
Students explore the science ideas involved in designing the circuit control and drop tower — circuits (series and parallel), electromagnets, and schematic diagram. Students create circuits and electromagnets. Download

DAY 4: The Blueprint
Students work on the design phase of their model’s three components: the circuit (an electromagnetic switch), the spacecraft, and the test hardware box. Download

DAYS 5, 6, & 7: Work It!
Students create their apparatus — circuit, spacecraft, and test hardware box based on criteria, constraints, and tradeoffs. Students justify all design decisions using data science ideas developed on Days 1 through 3. Download

DAY 8: Feedback
Students present their first draft apparatus to classmates and community volunteers, and receive important feedback. As students present their apparatus, they provide evidence for why their design is safe, cost-effective, and reliable. Download

DAY 9: Let's Drop That Egg!
Students test the design and “builds” they have produced. Download

DAY 10: Report It Out!
Students summarize their relevant experiences and data in a written testing report that justifies their design decisions and argues for the adoption of their capsule and tower design. Download

Download Additional Resources

Soft Landing Student Handbook


The materials created by this collaboration were taught by the authoring teachers in Puget Sound and Houston and in 2015, a second group of teachers taught the lessons and provided feedback to improve the modules. As part of a second iteration of the modules, the senior science editor at Teaching Channel worked with Achieve to integrate the teachers’ feedback while more closely aligning the modules to The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) call for significant shifts in the way science is taught and learned. In 2016, a panel of science experts from around the country convened for a two day training with Achieve to learn how to incorporate the Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products (EQuiP) Rubric for Science. As part of the iterative process of improvement, the expert reviewers then completed an EQuIP Rubric for each module. Teaching Channel's senior science editor combined the reviewers input to create a third iteration of the modules that promotes a close alignment to standards while honoring the original expertise of the authoring teachers and engineers.

Centennial Education Partner Resources

Engineers: "How do you take this concept of a variance in gravitation to the classroom? From a mechanical and structural perspective we thought, hey, can we do an egg drop? From an electrical background, we merged these ideas and came up with a testing apparatus which these students can use to integrate electricity and magnetism to mechanical and structural engineering – and that’s how the real world is." Teacher: "That’s cool, let’s do an egg drop for 5th graders and plan it out. Using their background behind engineering and my background behind 5th grade science, [we] really pushed our students to critically think and problem solve to find the solutions to the tasks that we gave them."

Destiny Woodbury
5th Grade Science Teacher
Houston, TX

Partners at the Institute for Science and Math Education at the University of Washington and Educate Texas were instrumental in teacher recruitment and the necessary training for this initiative.