Engineering an Electromagnetic Train

A Carolina Essentials™ Activity

Total Time: 60-120 mins

Prep: 30 mins | Activity: 30-90 mins

Physical Science


High School


This physics inquiry activity asks students to engineer the fastest “train.” Students are given a length of copper wire, AA batteries, and neodymium magnets and are asked to engineer a magnetic train that travels through a copper coil. The activity can be used to visually introduce electric and magnetic fields or as a summary engineering design challenge. Students can work in pairs or small groups, and all materials are reusable.

Your Engineering Problem

How can we move people quickly and minimize burning fossil fuel?

Essential Question

How can magnetic and electric fields be used to engineer a vehicle?

Activity Objectives

  1. Engineer a device that can transport a battery like a train car.
  2. Maximize the speed of the train car.

Next Generation Science Standards* (NGSS)

HS-PS2-5. Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence that an electric current can produce a magnetic field and that a changing magnetic field can produce an electric current.

Science & Engineering Practices

Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

Disciplinary Core Ideas

PS2.B: Types of Interactions

Crosscutting Concepts

Cause and Effect


Safety Procedures and Precautions

Magnets pose a choking hazard if swallowed.

Teacher Preparation and Disposal

Precut the 12 feet of copper wire prior to the activity. Check batteries for signs of corrosion and properly dispose of any cored batteries. All materials can be reused.

Student Procedures

  1. Your task is to construct a coil that will conduct a battery as quickly as possible through the coil. The variables you to work with:
    • The length of the coil. The length of the wire can NOT change, but the tightness and size of coils can change.
    • Number of batteries.
    • Number and placement of magnets.
  2. Data must include the speed of the train car- distance traveled in centimeters and time in seconds
  3. Keep a detailed log of the variables you changed with data.
  4. Include a picture of the final set-up.
  5. Include data for at least 3 runs of your final design and calculate the average final speed.

Teacher Preparation and Tips

  1. Review the principals of electromagnetic fields with students prior to the activity. Precut the copper wire to ensure the lengths are uniform. You may want to have items for students to use to wind the copper around to make a larger coil, like poster tubes, various sizes of beakers, paper towel rolls, or dowels.
  2. You may want to suggest or set-up a data table for students that have difficulty with the task.
  1. Remind students that speed = distance/time (cm/s)

Data and Observations

Construct a data table that identifies the variables you are changing (independent), the variables you are holding constant (controlled), and the variables you are measuring (dependent).

The only variable that must remain constant is the length of copper wire. Number of coils (length of track), number of batteries (1 or 2), number (1-4), and placement of magnets can all vary. Time and length of track must be measured to calculate speed.

Analysis & Discussion

Describe your final design, explain how it works, and use evidence to make a claim that it was the best design.

Student answers will vary with design; electromagnetic fields must be included in the explanation. Highest speed obtained should be correlated to best design.

Identify the variables that were the most impactful on the final design, and supply evidence for the variable impact on the design.

Student answers will vary with design.

*Next Generation Science Standards® is a registered trademark of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of, and do not endorse, these products.

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