Introduction: Sparklab- Create an Innovative Marble Run

About: Spark!Lab is a hands -on invention studio in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Spark!Lab activities communicate that invention is a process, rather than a single “Aha!” moment; provide vi…

Welcome to Spark!Lab digital. This is an online invention space where you get to be an inventor. There are no wrong answers, and you can create an invention using the pieces provided — or create some pieces of your own. Think like an inventor: how does your design solve a problem?

Create an Innovative Marble Run with these virtual materials or create your own parts and pieces. Using Tinkercad, you can delete, reshape, duplicate and create new parts.


  • Free Tinkercad account
  • Inventive creativity
  • "Create an Innovative Marble Run" parts from Spark!Lab's Tinkercad designs

Create an Innovative Marble Run

Step 1: Invention Is a Process

Invention is a Process

There are just two things to keep in mind as you create your marble run:

1. The invention process is not always linear, but inventors engage in these steps in some form or another:

"Think it" : Have a great idea for an invention.

"Explore it": Investigate inventions and ideas of the past.

"Sketch it": Draw pictures and diagrams to figure out how your invention might work.

"Create It": Build a prototype or model of your idea.

"Try It": Test your invention.

"Tweak It": Keep improving your idea.

"Share It": Share your idea with others or market your invention to people who might buy it.

2. We also know, everyone is inventive- and we do mean everyone! Today, you become the inventor. You will try new ideas, take risks, and learn how to keep going when things don’t go as planned.

Step 2: Think It

The first step of the invention process is to "think it," meaning to identify a problem you would like to solve, or something you will create and begin to imagine your solution.

What is the problem you are trying to solve or what are you trying to create?

When you create your marble run, what will it look like? How many pieces will it have? What will be the main pieces in your marble run. How long will your marble run keep going before it stops?

Step 3:

The next step of the invention process is to "explore it.” Inventors ask: “How have inventors solved this problem or explored this design in the past?” and then conduct research to learn more about the problem they want to solve or to understand solutions that already may exist. They learn from what others have already tried and make sure that their solutions are new or different.

A marble run is made up of parts and pieces that need to work together, including parts that are used in new and unusual ways. They can be complex or rather simple. The more pieces there are the more challenging it is to get everything in sync. Marble runs can be a great way for inventors like you to practice your problem solving skills.

Read a post about the game of marbles, from the The Strong National Museum of Play.

Try playing Tinker Ball to generate some ideas for your marble run.

Explore a Smithsonian Magazine article about the cartoonist Rube Goldberg and his "complicated contraptions."

Watch a video about an extremely slow moving Rube Goldberg contraption.

Step 4: Sketch It

Inventors use sketching as a way to organize their ideas.

Drawing an idea allows inventors to imagine what their invention might look like and how it will work. Try sketching out your invention before building! Take some time to sketch your ideas, images, and thoughts about your marble run.

You can sketch your ideas with paper and pencil, or you can try using a digital format. Remember! Inventors rarely get it right on the first try. Whatever the method, you may need to erase and re-draw your invention as you continue to think through how you want to solve the problem.

Click here to learn more about inventors' sketches in the Smithsonian Collection.

Step 5: Create It

Now it is time to build a prototype of your invention idea. In this step, inventors get to see their idea turn into something real. Building or designing a model can also help you learn about any issues there are with their invention design. Your prototype will show the layout, flow and function of your innovative marble run.

How can you use these virtual materials to design a marble run? What will your marble run look like? How many pieces will be used in your marble run?

Click here to go to the Tinkercad site where you can begin designing your innovative marble run.

Once you have created your design, move on to the Try It step.

Create an Innovative Marble Run

Step 6: Try It

Now that you have created your 3D model, try your design using the "Sim Lab" button in Tinkercad.

  • Which pieces of your idea worked well?
  • How many pieces of your own did you create?
  • How long was your marble run?
  • Did your marble run work like you hoped it would?
  • Did you change any of the material properties of your marble run pieces?
  • What will you add to improve the marble run next time?

Share your 3D model and ideas with others. Ask them for their input about your design.

  • What did they like best about marble run?
  • What did they think needed improving?
  • What new ideas did you get by sharing your idea with them?

Step 7: Tweak It

Now that you’ve designed your marble run, thought about how it would look, how it might work, tested it using the Sim Lab, and shared your idea with others, it’s time to tweak your invention! Now is the time to ask yourself, "What changes can I make to improve my marble run?”

Inventors typically don't succeed with an invention on the first try. Inventors make changes to their prototypes to make them work better. Usually, they tweak their idea many times before it is finished. Once tweaks are made, inventors test their inventions again. It can take many tries to get it right.

Go back to your design in Tinkercad and tweak it to make it easier to use.

Step 8: Share It

Sharing your idea is not only about putting it up for sale. Sharing an idea often happens when you tell others about your idea after you have made your final tweaks.

Tell us about your invention on social media!

  • Who will use your invention?
  • What makes your invention unique?
  • How does your invention work?

Follow us on Instagram and Twitter at @si_invention or Facebook@lemelsoncenter and use the hashtag #sparklab on your posts.