Man or machine

man or machine picSports records are continually being broken – balls hit harder, javelins thrown further and bicycles travelling faster – but are these improvements down to the athlete or the engineering? In this activity students apply their knowledge of frictional forces to design a racing bicycle to help team GB smash more records on the cycling track in the 2016 Olympic Games. After a ruling body claims their design gives an unfair advantage they will learn how to critique evidence in order to decide if they agree with the decision.


This material is called a Sequence, as it is designed to last two lessons. It explicitly teaches an important Working Scientifically skill, as well as developing science knowledge.  To download a Sequence, you need to upgrade your registration to Advanced User. It’s free, fast and will give you several other benefits. Answer the questions and upgrade here. 

Science objective

Contact forces: describe factors which affect the size of frictional and drag forces (KS3 Science Syllabus)

Designed for the KS3 Science SyllabusEnquiry objective

Critique claims: evaluate a claim about how bike design can give cyclists an unfair advantage (KS3 Science Syllabus)

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Man or machine - Lesson 1

Size: 10.74 MB

Man or machine - Lesson 2

Size: 6.69 MB

Man or machine - Teachers guide

Size: 51.69 KB

Running the activity

Lesson 1
Engage How has engineering changed cycling?
Review Students review the science of how reducing drag and friction will make cycling faster
Consider Students act as engineers and design clothing and bicycles to help team GB cycle faster. They justify their choices using ideas about drag and friction

Lesson 2
Engage Introduction of the claim about cycling
Play Students play a game to learn how to critique claims
Decide Students critique the claim made about cycling before writing a response

For detailed running notes, download the teachers guide.


Cycling’s a drag, but it doesn’t have to be

Article, suitable for teachers, on the different ways engineering is used to reduce drag in cycling. The data mentioned in the article was used in the activity.

Forces and speed

More information on the forces involved in cycling.

Wind tunnel testing

Short video clip that shows how a wind tunnel is used to test how aerodynamic a cyclist is.

Air resistance

Video clip from BBC Bitesize that explains the science behind reducing air resistance using cycling as a context. Accessible information, suitable for students of all ages.

The physics of cycling

In this video a sports scientist discusses the ways that engineering can be used to make bicycles faster. Good background information suitable for teachers and older students.


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  • bmiller says:

    Man or Machine

    Used for revision of forces after course completed. Would use it as integral part of Forces topic in future – one in which a students bike is brought into the class.

  • LPleszko says:


    Used with a more able Year 8 group. They really connected with the concept of forces and how they are used in sport. Pupils were highly motivated throughout.

  • LPleszko says:

    Excellent activity with follow up!

    This is perfect for combining hsw with real-life applications! Thank you.

  • Reuven Segev says:

    Forces on bicycle in slide 7 are wrong!

    The forces you show on the bicycle in slide number 7 are wrong. The friction force pushes the bicycle forward. The rolling friction acts to stop the bicycle but it applies a moment not a force in the way you have presented.

    Prof. Reuven Segev
    Mechanical Engineering,
    Ben-Gurion University

    • Gemma Young says:

      Thank you for your feedback on the resource. The writing team agree that the position of the ‘thrust’ arrow doesn’t show where this force is coming from so I have changed this slide and moved the arrow down on the diagram to show that it is provided by the back wheel. The rest of the diagram we have kept the same in order keep it accessible to young students.
      Gemma (from the writing team)

  • darmour1 says:

    OK but….

    Tried this with 2 year 7 classes now. The first lesson went well but I felt the second half of the second lesson is a little weaker as the three pieces of evidence presented to students are quite difficult and are given without much context. Mine found it very difficult to interpret the information – a few more clues might be needed.

    • Gemma Young says:

      Thank you for your feedback

      Great idea to have some more clues available for teachers to give to their students if they are needed. Could you let us know what clues you used with your class? This will help other teachers when using this activity with younger students. Thank you.
      Gemma (from the writing team)