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Solving the Puzzle of the Ferris Wheel


This is problem-solving at its best with the puzzle of the Ferris Wheel STEM Challenge.

It’s Ferris wheels! Do you remember the first time you rode a Ferris Wheel? I do! It was at an Oktober Fest in Germany and the Ferris Wheel passenger cars were quite large and round.

The center pole in the passenger car had a wheel on it and you could turn that wheel to make the passenger car travel around and around. Just think about how dizzy this would make you as you swirl around in a circle while going around in a circle!  

This STEM activity for older students (grades 4-6) presents many opportunities to solve problems and try again. It is challenging but so fun!

STEM activity amusement park Ferris wheel

History of the Ferris Wheel

First, of all, do you know why the word Ferris must be capitalized? It’s named after the inventor Mr. Ferris!  

This happened in 1893 when the director of the Chicago World’s Fair wanted a gigantic, unique, and amazing structure to rival the Eiffel Tower which had been featured at the previous World’s Fair in Paris.

The director challenged a group of engineers to design something bigger and better and Mr. Ferris came up with the Ferris wheel. His structure was 250+ feet tall with 60 passenger cars.

People paid fifty cents to ride the Ferris wheel which meant about a 2-revolution ride that took 20 minutes. Sadly, that original Ferris wheel was destroyed a few years later.  

After we learned all these facts about the first Ferris wheel my students were ready to build models. Only they didn’t have steel beams. They had craft sticks and glue.

TIP: If you try this project you are going to need craft sticks! Don’t be fooled by the dollar store variety- get the giant box- like this one:

They last forever, can be reused, and are much more economical than the dollar store packages!

The Geometry of the Wheel

In the photos, you can see a step-by-step progression of building the Ferris Wheel.

This shows the way kids created triangles and then a hexagon to make each side of the wheel. Next, they had to build a frame and join their two sides. We had some fabulous models.

We had to work through making a hexagonal shape and then joining the two sides together. It was also really important that the two sides were symmetrical and joined properly.

step by step photos of ferris wheel construction

Otherwise, you ended up with a wonky wheel that would not turn. This happened a lot!

But, one of the things I love about STEM class is that students make mistakes and then try something else. When their misshapen wheels were not turning they took the whole structure apart and were more diligent about laying those craft sticks in a good arrangement- but with each side matching.

It was like the ultimate jigsaw puzzle!

We made a few mistakes!

Ferris wheel failure STEM Challenge

Matching the two sides of the wheel proved to be challenging!

Yes, I’m going to say the group in this photo didn’t quite match up their wheel sides correctly.

We learn by doing and solving problems in STEM class is quite rewarding!

That Tricky Axle

Another problem that we encountered is that an axle had to go through the Ferris wheel.

This meant the students had to leave an opening!

Some groups paid no attention to this minor detail and ended up with the center of their wheels being a stack of craft sticks, but no place to thread the axle. And, yes, they took that apart and started over.

Solving all these problems was definitely due to persistence.

STEM activity elementary Ferris Wheel

Some of our mistakes were really interesting. Look closely at the photo above. Can you spot the mistake?  

It’s not a hexagon. That Ferris wheel has SEVEN sides! But, y’all, look at it. It’s perfectly matched and it did work very well! How on earth did that team make a seven-sided shape? Do you know how hard that is to do on purpose?

Major Problem Solving

 This was an exciting STEM challenge!  

Even though the Ferris wheels all looked very similar when finished it was still unique to each group.

They all approached the task differently. Some matched the wheel sides by laying them on top of each other. Some actually measured.

Some just eyeballed it and hoped it worked.

Ferris Wheels in upper elemntary STEM class

This was a fabulous trial-and-error challenge. This multi-day STEM activity was a puzzle indeed!

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  1. Anonymom says

    Wow, my son tried this and he got it right on the first try but instead of 6 sides he did 10!!! I'm so very proud, and I love this project! X) 😀 🙂

  2. Carol Davis says

    Hi, Julie, I have never seen that technique used with our Ferris wheels, but it sounds like it would work. If you have older students I think they could do this! Thanks for visiting my blog!