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.

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)

Try the activity

Man or machine - Lesson 1

Size: 10.74 MB

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.