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September 29, 2021

Lesson Plan: An elevator for everyone — Improving on long-standing inventions with inventions of your own

Inventor Alexander Miles, his elevator design in 1887, and a modern elevator. Source: Wikimedia Commons


For a Google version of this lesson plan, click here. (Note: you will need to make a copy of the document to edit it).

To explore the rest of EXTRA’s Invention Education lesson series, click here. We are always looking for ways to make our invention resources stronger. If you completed part or all of this lesson, we would appreciate it if you filled out this feedback form.


In this activity, participants will be looking at ways to improve an existing invention: the elevator. Participants may choose to improve capacity, speed, safety, the control panel — any working part of an elevator — and must take into account accessibility. In fact, if so inclined, ADDING a feature is a possibility as well. Just remember that no suggestion can be made that violates physical laws such as the laws of motion.

Essential question

How can new inventions improve on older inventions to make them work better for everyone?

Estimated time

One 50-minute class, students in groups of 2-4 (2 for HS or 3-4 in MS) ; longer time if the extensions are used


Science, engineering, technology, social studies, civics




  • Graph Paper
  • Pencil
  • Red pen
  • Computer with internet access
  • Design graphic (included)


Did you know that elevators did not always have doors that closed automatically? They were sometimes left open and if the elevator was not in place, people could step into an open shaft and take a nasty fall — a fall often resulting in death or serious injury.

In 2007, African American barber-turned-inventor Alexander Miles was admitted to the Inventor’s Hall of Fame located in the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) for his improvement to elevator design. In the late 1800s, Miles submitted a design for elevator doors that opened and closed electronically, preventing people from falling into open elevator shafts. He undertook this due to fear for his own daughter wandering into an open shaft in a building that Miles had built. What changes would YOU propose to make the design of elevators better, safer or more accessible?

Warm-up activity

  1. Take a few moments to view this video clip on Alexander Miles and his invention to improve elevator safety.
  2. With your group, review the video as necessary and discuss:
    1. What was Miles’ main goal with his invention?
    2. Why might Miles have felt this invention necessary?
  3. 3. Below are a few articles to help you understand that elevator accidents do take place. Choose at least one to read as a group or class. Then discuss: What could have prevented this accident?

From KIRO TV 7 in Boston: “Inspector’s report details elevator accident that fatally crushed Boston University lecturer

From the Washington Post: Another child was crushed by a home elevator, just months after U.S. regulators decided against safety recall

From WLNY a CBS affiliate in NYC: Construction Worker Killed, Another Injured In Bronx Elevator Collapse

4. Take 5-7 minutes and look at the following elevator panels from around the world. (teacher will need to print these or link them electronically). With your group, brainstorm a list of things that could/should be improved about your group’s assigned panel. Be ready to present your ideas to the other groups. (5 minutes)

Photo credits:

Alexander Miles https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander-Miles.png

Elevator diagram: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MilesElevatorDesignDiagram1.png

Elevator diagram: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MilesElevatorDesignDiagram3.png

Modern elevator: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:240_Sparks_Elevators.jpg


Main activity

  1. Now, it’s your turn! You and your group are the design team for a new generation of elevators for a brand new office building. The building has a three-level below-ground parking garage, a roof-top deck and 16 total floors including the lobby. You can focus your design on addressing accessibility and safety issues, as suggested by part 3 of the warm-up, or panel design, as suggested by part 4.
  2. Use the graph paper and pencils to design an elevator panel that is easy to read; takes into account accessibility, that is, it can be reached by people who are wheelchair bound and can be used by the visually impaired (no, you do not need to know how to read/write in Braille) OR design an elevator that is responsive to some of the safety concerns from the news article or both. (15 min)
  3. Working teams share out with the group. (3-5 min)
  4. As you watch and listen to others present, consider what changes your panel might be able to use…use the red pen to indicate what may need to be changed.
  5. Now that you have feedback from others, take an additional 7-10 minutes to tweak your design based upon feedback or based upon the other designs you have seen.
  6. Turn in your revised design ideas to your instructor for a gallery walk in the next session.

Extension activities

As an extension, consider the following:

  1. How might you make the elevator faster?
  2. How might the elevator design be changed to make it smoother?
  3. How might elevator and building design change to allow elevators to move vertically and horizontally?
  4. If available, use LittleBits or other microcontrollers to model your design.
  5. Be sure to check out the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office’s classroom materials on intellectual property and how to apply for a U.S. patent.

Doug Spicher has been teaching for more than 30 years in Prince George’s and Howard Counties in Maryland. He currently teaches at Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Maryland. Doug has a BS from Youngstown State and an MEd in curriculum from Loyola College. He has written activities for both counties and is a contributor of PHet activities for the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Next Generation Science Standards
    • MS-PS3-2: Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions – such as inputs, processes, and outputs – and energy and matter flows within systems.
    • MS-LS1-6: Construct a scientific explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from sources (including the students’ own experiments) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
    • HS-ETS1-3: Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.

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