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Great Escape

Classroom Activity


To invent a way to deliver a note across a fixed distance.

Materials for teacher
  • wooden spools, enough for 2 pulleys per team
  • wire coat hangers
  • wire cutters
  • pliers
Materials for each team
  • copy of the "Great Escape Challenge" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • 7 meters of string
  • paper
  • two pulleys
  • paper clips
  • wooden laundry clips
  • straws
  • paper cups
  • scissors

  1. The men at Stalag Luft 3 had few resources and many challenges to overcome as they tried to escape their prison. Using ingenuity, resourcefulness, and perseverance they managed to build a tunnel that allowed 76 men to escape. In this activity, students will use a set of resources to devise a way to deliver a note across several meters.

  2. Organize students into teams and distribute copies of the student handout and a set of materials to each team.

  3. Explain that each team must devise a way to send a note back and forth across three meters, using only the materials provided. Tell students they are not required to use every material. (See directions below for how to make a pulley.)

  4. Allow students to discover for themselves how pulleys might be used for the challenge. When teams have completed the challenge, have each team present its method to the class and explain how team members came up with their design.

  5. Working with students, develop ways to evaluate designs, noting that no single best design exists and that different tasks require different designs.

  6. As an extension, ask students to research other great escapes in history. For more information, see Great Escapes at

Making Pulleys

Pulley Cut a 25 cm length of wire from the coat hanger. Slide the wire through a wooden spool. Allow one end of the wire to extend farther than the other. Use pliers to bend the wire at right angles on either side of the spool. Bend the short end of the wire around the other to secure the ends together. Bend the long end into a hook.

Activity Answer

A pulley consists of a freely turning wheel and a rope. The wheel is fixed to a support and the rope runs over the wheel. In this activity, students can discover how to use pulleys to change the direction of force (e.g., pulling a rope down to hoist a flag up). Pulleys can be made with just one wheel, or with two or more wheels.

Students' designs will vary. If students are having difficulty understanding how a pulley can be used to change direction of force, have them experiment with one pulley, noting how when they pull down on the string, the object attached to the other end is lifted up. Some teams may design systems that do not involve pulleys. These are valid inventions and provide an opportunity to compare different designs and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.

There are dozens of applications that resemble a pulley system. Elevators operate on pulley systems. Some students may be familiar with clotheslines that operate on a similar principle, with a single loop of rope running continually around the system. Ski lifts use the same model, as do flag poles in a vertical manner.

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA Web Site—Great Escape
Find articles, interviews, interactive activities, and resources in this companion Web site to the program.

The Great Escape
Provides an overview of the 1944 great escape, including information about the escape committee, key personnel, the tunnels, the victims, and the survivors.


Brickhill, Paul. The Great Escape. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983.
Tells the story of how, in order to escape a Nazi prison, inmates ingeniously built underground railroads, forged passports, drew maps, faked weapons, and tailored German uniforms and civilian clothes.

Vance, Jonathan F. The Gallant Company: The Men of the Great Escape. New York: Ibooks, 2003.
Provides background on each of the officers who took part in the March 1944 Stalag Luft 3 escape, chronicling each of their roles and ultimate outcomes.


The "Great Escape Challenge" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards:

Grades 5-8

Physical Science

Science Standard B:
Physical Science

Motions and forces:

  • If more than one force acts on an object along a straight line, then the forces will reinforce or cancel one another depending on their direction and magnitude. Unbalanced forces will cause changes in the speed or direction of an object's motion.

Grades 9-12

Science as Inquiry

Science Standard E:
Science and Technology

Design a solution or product

  • Students should make and compare different proposals in the light of the criteria they have selected. They must consider constraints—such as cost, time, trade-offs, and materials needed—and communicate ideas with drawings and simple models.

Classroom Activity Author

This classroom activity originally appeared in the companion Teacher's Guide for NOVA's "Secrets of the Lost Empires I: Colosseum" program.

Teacher's Guide
Great Escape

Video is not required for this activity
Park Foundation, Sprint, Microsoft
Park Foundation Sprint Microsoft

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