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Designer Sneakers

Grades: 5-8
Author: Sandy Van Natta


Module Description

This module allows the participant to use inquiry to investigate the science involved in the design and manufacture of an "everyday" product - the athletic shoe. Participants will examine their own shoes looking at the parts and identifying their functions. Shoes are made of polymers, long chain molecules that have unique physical properties. Participants will learn to alter the physical properties of a common polymer, glue, with different additives. They will then test their formulations for such properties as impact resistance, strength, bounce, fluidity, and texture. Using data collected during the testing, participants will design and actually build a prototype of a designer sneaker from the polymer products they have designed and tested.

A discussion of science and technology will flow from this lesson. Participants will be actively involved in mimicking all the technological and scientific processes involved to bring a consumer product to the market.


  • Participants will describe how the various parts of a shoe function to give comfort and support to the foot.
  • Participants will describe the importance of polymer compounding to achieve the physical properties needed for the midsole of an athletic shoe.
  • Participants will work cooperatively.
  • Participants will perform tests on materials designed to mimic actual industrial testing procedures and collect data.
  • Participants will make spreadsheets and graphs representing their data.
  • Participants will examine and analyze the data collected from the testing of polymers to determine which material has the best properties to fill a specific need.
  • Participants will invent and innovate, and use problem solving.
  • Participants will design and manufacture a shoe prototype based upon their data analysis.
  • Participants will discuss science and technology after they have experienced the connections within this lesson.


The total cost for running a session for about 30 to 32 participants would be about $70.00. The cost will be less if some of the materials can be borrowed from existing science classes.

  • Several old athletic shoes cut in half (this can be done with a power saw. Shoes can be obtained from volunteers, the school lost and found, or a secondhand store like, the Goodwill Store.)
  • A mixture of 50% glue (such as Elmers Glue All) and 50% water (90 mL times the number of groups you are preparing for) Glue can be purchased in gallon containers at office supply stores.
  • A mixture of 75% glue and 25% water (90 mL times the number of groups you are preparing for)
  • 2 Bottles or containers to mix the glue solutions
  • Cooking Oil- 2 tsp (10 mL) per group
  • Talc - 2 tsp (10 mL) per group. Talc can be obtained unscented from chemical supply houses or from talcum or baby powder available in grocery and drug stores
  • Food coloring - red and green
  • Laundry borax (sodium tetraborate) - 1 box - available in the laundry aisle of grocery stores or from chemical supply houses
  • 3 oz plastic cups - at least 40
  • Recloseable sandwich bags - at least 40
  • Permanent markers - 1 per group
  • Craft sticks - at least 40
  • 10 mL graduated cylinder - 1
  • 100 mL graduated cylinder - 1
  • Meter stick - 1 per group
  • 15 cm ruler - 1 per group
  • Yogurt cups - 4 per group - each cup should be cut down to 2 cm in height
  • 1 inch glass marble or similar sized object - 1 per group
  • PVC tubing - 1.25 ID tube 30 cm long (if tubing is not available, a tube made from rolled stiff paper or poster board will work in the development session) - 1 per group (PVC tubing is available at all hardware stores.)
  • PVC tubing - 1.25 ID tube 60 cm long (if tubing is not available, a tube made from rolled stiff paper or poster board will work in the development session) - 1 per group
  • Clear plastic wrap - 1 box
  • Hex bolts - ½ inch x 3 inches - 1 per group
  • Small plastic spoons (each spoon is about 1 tsp or 5 mL) - several for measuring and mixing
  • Synthetic black rubber outersole cut from black wall base - 1 per group. (Wall base is available at any hardware store. If you do not wish to purchase the wall base, shoe "soles" can be cut from laminated poster board for a 1 time use)
  • Scissors
  • Latex caulk - clear - 1 tube
  • Student Procedure and Data Pages for the Strength, Impact Testing and Elastic Recovery, and Elasticity/Bounce Tests. - optional (These sheets can be found in the Student Version in the Exploration and Explanation of the Learning Cycle section.)
  • Clock or watch
  • Graph paper - optional
  • Computers with spreadsheet programs - optional


The entire module on "Designer Sneakers" can be found at The module is written as two parts; a Teacher Version and a Student Version. There are both long and short forms of each version. Both versions contain basically the same information but the Elaboration section of the long version contains more activities. The facilitator can download either the long or short version to find all the information needed to conduct this professional development session. The Teacher Version gives detailed and specific goals and management notes for each section of the Learning Cycle. The Student Version gives specific directions for procedures as well as additional background reading.

A brief overview will be given here with emphasis on running a professional development session.


In this phase you want to get participants to think about the foot itself, how important it is, and how a shoe functions to cushion, protect, and support the foot.

Ideally each group should receive ½ of a shoe to investigate the outer, mid, and insoles. Shoes can then be shared between groups. At least 2 brands of shoes should be used for comparison. The parts of the shoe are identified in the Engagement Section of the Student Version. Discuss with your groups the basic parts of the shoe, their functions, and any special features found in the shoes. Look for wear on the outside of the shoes. Have Participants look for wear patterns on the shoes they are currently wearing. Put up an overhead of the diagram of Overpronation, Normal, and Supination. This diagram can be found in the Student Version under "Introduction to Athletic Shoes - Homework Activity". Have each teacher use the wear patterns on his/her shoes to determine how they roll their foot as they walk.

You probably won't have time to have participants make a wet footprint to evaluate their arch type. You may want to spray your own foot with water and make a "footprint" in advance of the workshop. Outline your foot impression with marker before the paper dries. You can hold up this print for discussion in this phase if you wish.

Once the participants have noted the importance of their shoes, ask them to identify the types of materials their shoes are made from. The Participants will probably say plastics, rubber, leather, or cloth. Point out that all these materials are polymers. Most of the polymers are man-made (synthetic) but a few like leather are natural.

Assessment: In the Engagement section the facilitator can see if Participants are actively involved in not only examining the shoes, but in discussing the parts and purpose of the shoes. The evaluation is verbal and informal.


Participants will perform several tests on glue putties that are synthetic polymers. Although the putties are not the same polymers as used in the actual shoes, they can be used to model the basic properties of the materials used in the shoes.

Assign your participants to work in groups of 4 for the rest of this module. Give each group a sample of each of the 6 putties you have made in advance. Have them take 2 or 3 putties out of the bags and "feel" them. Tell them to refer to the bags to find out the ingredients in each mixture. Ask them to think about what might cause the difference in the "feel" of the putties. Caution the participants to always put the putties back in the labeled bags when not in use so that the putties don't become confused during testing. Explain the procedures and purposes of the 3 tests that participants will be asked to perform on the putties. You fill find complete directions to the tests in the Student Version. You may wish to run off the procedure pages for the Strength, Impact and Elastic Recovery, and Elasticity/Bounce tests from the Student Version so that participants have a detailed set of directions and a chart to fill in during testing.

Allow time for each group to test their putties and record their results. It should take at least an hour for Participants to complete the testing. You may need to shorten some of the tests. The marble in the strength test can be dropped from heights of only 30 cm, 45, cm, and 60 cm. The time allowed to measure recovery during the Impact and Elastic Recovery Test can be shortened to two minutes. The bounce test may only be performed on the floor or table tops of the room you are in. Ring stands are not needed for your session. Participants can hold the long tubes in place. If paper or poster board tubes are being used instead of PVC tube, the ring stands will not support them anyway.

Assessment: During the exploration section, walk around to each group to see if they are completing all data charts and following reasonable laboratory procedures. There are rubrics included in the Teacher Version for this section but they are probably more detailed and time consuming than your professional development session will allow. Think of your participants as engineers. Are they performing as expected?


In this stage, the groups report their findings and look for patterns in their test results. Questions can be answered and new terms can be introduced.

If time allows, have the participants fill in data from one of their tests (bounce test may be easiest) into a spreadsheet and have the computer produce a graph of the data for analysis. Remind participants that representing data in the form of a graph helps scientists examine results, reflect on findings, and communicate with others. Graphs communicate information quickly and identify trends and relationships that may not appear in a table. Components of a good graph may be discussed at this time (title, labeled axes with units of measurement, uniform spacing for units of measurement on each axis, and if a line is drawn - the best fit straight line to go through the middle of the points rather than through every point)

If computers and spreadsheet programs are unavailable, have each group graph at least one set of data by hand. If this option is chosen, graph paper will be needed.

Whatever results each group receives in their testing are acceptable. Normally, the 50/50 glue putties will break before the 75/25 putties during the strength test. Ask what advantages the stronger polymers would have in a shoe and where they might be placed. (The stronger polymers would be appropriate for midsoles to withstand impact due to objects on the ground. One would not like to have his/her shoe crack under the foot while running or walking.)

Ask which polymers seemed the best at absorbing shock (Impact Test). Most groups will find that the oil or talc samples are best based on the depth of the indentations. Ask about the best recovery time. Again oil or talc samples will probably be noted here. Ask how these features would relate to functions in a shoe. (In a shoe, a good shock-absorbing surface deforms when struck and this is represented by the indentation made in the polymer's surface by the bolt. The surface must also be able to rapidly return to "normal" and be ready to take the next impact as the foot strikes the ground again.)

Note that the best shock absorbers should provide the least amount of bounce after a collision. When the putty ball is dropped, the ball deforms. This shape change takes energy. The height of the rebound of the ball is determined by how much energy is returned to the ball after the deformation. In a shoe, the energy of the rebound is transferred back to the foot, ankles, shins, and knees of the wearer. Ask the Participants where in a shoe they might want a good bouncer and where they would want a poor bouncer but good shock absorber. (Since the runner lands on his heel first, the heel material should absorb shock. In a shoe like a basketball shoe, the athlete may want to "spring" upward toward a basket. A good bouncer could be placed in the toe of the shoe.) Participants will probably find that their 75/25 mixtures bounced higher than their 50/50 mixtures.

Detailed explanations of tests results can be found by the facilitator in the Teacher Version in the section on the individual tests.

After a discussion of the results, the facilitator should introduce the term compounding. The participants will know that the putties contained additives. They can now look at how each additive, water, talc, and oil may have altered the properties of each putty. Try to get your participants to summarize the effect each additive may have had on the putty. Point out that industry uses additives to improve qualities of actual plastics sold. The additives may increase color, strength, fire resistance, texture, etc. They may decrease many things from static cling to cost!

Assessment: Use the completion of graphs and quality of discussion to evaluate the Explanation section. Make sure the Participants are using the correct terminology to describe the parts of a shoe. When participants discuss the outcome of each test, have them relate the physical properties discussed to possible uses in a shoe.


Hold a discussion of science and technology with an emphasis of how the previous experience of making and testing materials for athletic shoes is an example. Use information about science and technology on the AGPA website to guide the discussion. Have participants discuss how they would apply what they have just learned in their classrooms. Give time for participants to complete the lesson implementation sheet as a first step to moving toward classroom implementation.

Assessment: Make sure the discussion emphasizes ties to science and technology. Teaching physical properties is common in physical science courses, however teaching how those properties can be altered and utilized ties the "science" into the importance of producing products for daily lives. Check the lesson implementation plans for faithfulness to the lesson just experienced. If possible, visit the participants' classes for onsite assessment.

A New Exploration!

Participants will now apply their data and the conclusions they drew to create a prototype midsole for a specific athletic shoe.

Assign the "Task" given in the Elaboration of the Learning Cycle in the Student Version with slight modifications. Each group will be asked to design a midsole for a specific type of athletic shoe (running, basketball, tennis, cross trainer, etc.) from the putties they have already tested and evaluated. They should use information learned in the previous sections to decide where to put the best shock absorber or the best bouncer. They must decide where to put the strongest or weakest polymers or where to put the ones with the fastest recovery times.

Tell Participants that if more time had existed, they would have been able to test all 10 formulations of putties as well as been able to create and test putty formulations of their own. Due to time constraints, they will only be able to use their 6 original samples for the construction of their prototype.

Participants will construct their prototype on the black rubber outsole cut from wall board (or laminated poster board) with a bead of latex caulk around the outer rim. The caulk allows them to build up the layers on the outsole without the putties flowing over the edges. There will not be time in your session to construct an insole.

Have each group pick a spokesperson to present and describe their shoe prototype to the group as a whole. The spokesperson needs to tell which putty was placed at each location and why this putty was chosen for this site.

At the end of your session, putties can be placed in the trash. You can save the outsoles for reuse.

Assessment: The group presentation of their prototype shoe is the actual evaluation of the Elaboration phase. Note whether or not participants based their decisions on where to place specific polymers on their data analyses.


The current science standards require that participants do more than just read about technological advances. The participant must become actively involved in tying science and technology together. This module is an exemplar of a science and technology unit. The module allows participants to be actively engaged as they investigate the tie between science and sports and as they examine and design athletic shoes. This module uses the learning cycle to take participants through the major steps of a scientific investigation. When posed with a problem of how to design an athletic shoe to meet certain specifications, participants must test materials using procedures that mimic actual industrial tests. The physical properties of materials are then altered through the use of additives much the way industrial companies change the physical properties of their products through a process called compounding. After collecting data and studying the functions of various shoe parts, the participants design and "manufacture" their own shoe sole. This process can also involve research, conducting consumer surveys, running cost analyses, and creating charts and graphs to explain decisions made. During this process, participants cannot only use their math and science skills but are encouraged to use artistic and communication skills. The participant is exposed to the same processes an industrial company must go through in order to design, develop and market a new product. This is as close to "real world" science as the participant is likely to get. If participants go back to their classrooms and try this module with their own students, they will find that their students will be actively involved and have a great deal of fun while learning science concepts, procedures, and processes.

Science Standards

Content, Technology, and Professional Development:


Science and Technology: As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop:

  • Abilities of technological design.
  • Understanding about science and technology.

Science as Inquiry: as a result of activities, in grades 5-8, all students should develop:

  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry.

Physical Science: as a result of activities, in grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of:

  • Properties and changes of properties in matter.

Professional Development:

Standard A: Professional development for teachers of science requires learning essential science content through the perspectives and methods of inquiry. Science learning experiences for teachers must:

  • Involve teachers in actively investigating phenomena that can be studied scientifically, interpreting results, and making sense of findings consistent with currently accepted scientific understanding.
  • Build on teacher's current science understanding, ability and attitudes.

Standard B: Professional development for teachers of science requires integrating knowledge of science, learning, pedagogy, and students; it also requires applying that knowledge to science teaching. Learning experiences for teachers of science must:

  • Use inquiry, reflection, interpretation of research, modeling and guided practice to build understanding and skill in science teaching.

National Education Technology Standards:

Technology productivity tools:

  • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.

Technology research tools:

  • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
  • Students use technology tools to process data and report results.

Best Teaching Practices

  • Authentic Problem Solving
  • Hands-on/Minds-on
  • Inquiry

Time Frame

Preparation time: 2 hours to prepare materials. Additional time will be required to locate or purchase other supplies.

Module lesson time: 2 to 3 hours. The website gives complete directions for preparation of materials.


Since this entire module would actually take a minimum of 10 class periods to complete with students, the facilitator will need to prepare samples of the polymer glue putties in advance and pre-package them in small baggies. The module on the website gives directions for making 10 different formulations of glue putties. It is suggested that the facilitator only make up examples of 6 different types to give Participants a "feel" for the putties. The 6 recommended are:

  • 75%/25% glue/water - no additives
  • 75%/25% glue/water - talc added
  • 75%/25% glue/water - oil added
  • 50%/50% glue/water - no additives
  • 50%/50% glue/water - talc added
  • 50%/50% glue/water - oil added

The directions for making these putties are found in the Student Version under the Procedures for days 1 through 5. You will need to make up one sample of each type of putty for each group that you will have in your development session. Each putty should be placed in a recloseable bag and each bag labeled with its contents. Since putties will all look similar, except for color, labeling is important. The putties will keep for days in the sealed bags once they have been made.

Cut prototype shoe soles from black rubber wall board or laminated cardboard. Place a bead of caulk around the outer edge of the soles. The directions for this procedure are found in Teacher Pages under "Teacher Notes: Exploration of the Learning Cycle Compounding Glue Polymers and Latex"

You will need to gather testing equipment. You will probably not have time to conduct all 5 tests described in the module. It is recommended that you conduct the Strength, Impact and Elastic Recovery, and Bounce tests.

Make overheads of the diagrams of shoe parts and of pronation, normal, and supination gaits. These diagrams can be found in the introductory reading in the Engagement section of the Student Version.

You will not have time to conduct any of the portions of this unit dealing with latex.

If computers are available, you may want to have a spreadsheet program available for your participants.


Goggles should be worn at all times when making and working with the putties.

If any chemical in this activity should contact the eye, rinse the affected area with water for 15 minutes and seek medical attention.

There is usually no danger in handling the glue putties but participants should wash their hands after use. Borax may cause allergic reactions in some people. Participants can determine their sensitivity to the putty by touching a small amount. If redness or itching occurs, wash the affected area with mild soap solution and avoid further contact.

"Used" putties can be placed in the trash. All testing equipment can be returned for re-use.


Included in the student activity documents.

Explanation of Science

Detailed explanations of the science involved in this module can be found in both the Teacher and Student Versions of this module. Most of the explanations will be found in the background reading supplied to the teacher and the student. The Key Concept Skills are explained in the AGPA website.


See Activity link below.


The use of graphing and spreadsheets is a math/technology extension.

A historical look at athletic equipment ties in social studies. Cultural diversity in types of shoes or lack of them by runners and athletes from different parts of the world would be an interesting topic of discussion.

One can easily invite an athletic coach to speak to the participants about shoes for a given sport at some time before, during, or after the professional development session. This will give a more direct tie to athletics. Remember that you have many activities and experiments to cover in this session. Extra time must be allotted if a speaker is invited.

Lesson Implementation Template

Download Lesson Implementation Template: Word Document or PDF File


Place Participants in groups of 4 for this module. Be aware of the needs of diverse participants and keep diversity in mind when choosing the groups.


See Activity link below.


"Designer Sneakers" Student and Teacher Versions