Going Marbles for STEM Hands-on Learning

Guest blog post by Francie Kugelman

Do you remember the thrill of dropping a marble into a maze and watching it roll, spin, and finally end at the bottom of your run? Having your students create a marble run can be a fantastic learning experience for your students, and it makes a great STEM project, too. Believe it or not, you might even be able to the materials for this project absolutely free!

I recently decided to have my 3rd graders design and test marble runs as a part of my Forces and Interactions science unit. I developed the activity to address the Next Generation Science Standard 3-PS2-1: “Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object.”

When I began looking for materials, I discovered the Marble Run Extreme kit from Marble Genius which looked like the perfect resource for this STEM activity. I was going to order a kit from Amazon.com, but after noticing that many reviewers were able to purchase the kit at a reduced price, I emailed the company to ask about getting a discount. I ended up with something even better than a discount… they offered to send me a kit for free! I also ordered a set of six stopwatches from Amazon that my students could wear around their necks so they could time their runs and make adjustments.

For our first class experience with marble runs, we had large teams and I separated the kit so every team had the essential parts for their marble runs. After the activity, I contacted Marble Genius to thank them, and I raved about their Marble Run Extreme kit. I couldn’t believe it when Jeff Forgrave, the founder of the company, emailed me back and offered to send me 10 more kits for free! One kit isn’t really enough for an entire class, and he wanted my students to experience a true hands-on STEM lesson where every child could participate in designing, building, and testing marble runs.

After the kits arrived, I had classroom parents label every piece so I could easily put them back together again. Each kit includes 125 translucent plastic pieces and 20 marbles, so it was easy to make sure every group had essential pieces to create their marble run. I rolled up our classroom rugs and put them in the hallway so the marble runs would have stability on our floor.

The Challenge: Building the Slowest Marble Run

When it was time to start the activity, I divided my students into small cooperative learning groups and challenged them to design the SLOWEST run! I gave each team a set of marble run materials including a stopwatch, and I could feel the excitement and urgency in the room as each team worked on trying to build the slowest marble run in the classroom.

I loved hearing the excitement in my room as I watched how focused and engaged my students were, from high achievers to struggling students. One team discovered that the circular shape with the hole in the middle is perfect for slowing down the marble. I had the rest of the class watch that team’s marble run in action, and I challenged the other teams to match their time and increase it!

Every team wanted to time their run and change their design so they could increase the time it took for their marble to complete its run. Both boys and girls worked together on their marble runs, and had no difficulties making adjustments to the configuration of their marble runs.

Besides creating a run with the slowest time, we tried some other runs. One activity required the students to use all the pieces they were given to create the fastest run, and another criteria was to choose 5 pieces that could be removed from the kit that would help the run to be even faster.

Creating marble runs was fun for my students, and they really loved the activity. But what I liked best was the fact that they were experimenting and making critical thinking choices while exploring Next Generation Science Standard concepts related to forces and interactions!

Marble Run Extreme Kits

The Marble Run Extreme kits worked great for this activity! The pieces are easy to assemble, sturdy, and made of colorful transparent plastic! My third graders are 9 years old, and the kits were so easy to use that none of them asked for my help putting their Marble Runs together. We loved watching the marbles as they traveled their way through the run because this kit features transparent plastic, making it extremely easy to watch and film the journey. Because I labeled the parts of each kit, putting the pieces away in the correctly labeled box was easy to do.

If you do this activity with your students, I recommend purchasing several kits so you’ll have plenty of materials for your students to use when designing their marble runs. The more marble run kits you order, the more pieces each team has to work with. A total of 4-5 kits would be perfect for a classroom of 25 students so there would be lots of pieces for each team to work with.

If you order enough kits, you could even create a Makerspace in your classroom where your students can design their own Ultimate Marble Runs any way they want to!

DonorsChoose Funding for Marble Run Materials

You can also explore grants and funding opportunities to obtain the materials. If you teach in a public school in the United States, you could easily write a DonorsChoose proposal for the marble run kits and stopwatches, and there’s a good chance it would be fully funded. DonorsChoose.org is a nonprofit organization that helps teachers get funding for classroom materials, and if you aren’t tapping into this source of funding, now would be a great time to begin!

I’ve had 200 DonorsChoose projects funded with a total value of over $100,000, and I’ve learned a few tricks for getting your project funded successfully. First, try to keep your total materials cost under $350 because small projects are much more likely to get funded. Also, search for funding match offers by state here on the DonorsChoose website and keep them in mind when writing your proposal.

To learn more about how to obtain funding through DonorsChoose.org, follow the Caring Classrooms Community on Facebook. Members of this group help and support each other as they work to get their DonorsChoose projects funded. Laura Candler and I are the administrators of the group, and we love supporting teachers who are trying to obtain DC funding. You might also want to watch the replay of the DonorsChoose webinar that Laura and I presented together a few months ago because we shared a lot of helpful information!

Marble Genius Partners with Caring Classrooms

While I was communicating with Jeff Forgrave a few months ago to share my excitement about the Marble Run Extreme kits, I also told him about DonorsChoose and the teachers who make up the Caring Classrooms Community.

When he found out about our mission, he offered to sponsor the Caring Classrooms Community with a $500 donation AND 20 Marble Run Super Set kits to give to teachers in our community! Laura and I are so appreciative of this level of support from Marble Genius, and we’re planning to give those kits away in the Caring Classrooms Going Marbles Contest. Click over to the contest page now to see how it works!

If the contest is over by the time you read this, don’t worry because Marble Genius pledges to support future contests with donations of Marble Run Kits. If you want to be notified about all of our contests and special events, sign up for the Caring Classrooms email newsletter. Who knows? You might be one of the lucky winners!

Francie Kugelman was one of the co-founders of the Caring Classrooms Giving Page. Sadly, she passed away in March 2024 after a long battle with cancer. Francie was teaching 3rd grade at Dahlia Heights Elementary School in Los Angeles at the time she wrote this post, and her love for the teaching profession and her students is apparent in every word! Francie loved actively engaging her students in the learning process, and she obtained over $100,000 in classroom funding from DonorsChoose.org to help bring those lessons to life. Francie was a passionate advocate for DonorsChoose.org, and she enjoyed helping other teachers obtain funding for their projects through this nonprofit organization. Francie also held the honor of being the very first Marble Genius Ambassador!