Athlete or machine? Which is more important in the bob skeleton event?

This is a teaching and learning resource for Key Stage 3 students that combines design & technology, mathematics and science activities to investigate the big question:

Athlete or machine? Which is more important in the bob skeleton event?

Bob skeleton is an extreme winter sport in which athletes slide head first down an ice covered track on a sled that holds them just centimetres from the surface. The aim of the sport is to get to the bottom of the track in the quickest time.

It is a winter sport in which British athletes, such as, Amy Williams, Shelly Rudman and Kristan Bromley, have achieved a number of Olympic and World Championship medals.

It is also a sport that applies engineering, mathematical and scientific skills and knowledge to create the sleds and equipment needed to win these medals.

This resource has been developed with support from BAE Systems, who engineered the sled used by Olympic gold medallist Amy Williams, and is intended to be a truly inclusive STEM resource. It has been designed to be used by teachers of design & technology, mathematics and science to show students how these STEM subjects are central to the study and practice of engineering. It is also hoped that it will encourage STEM teachers to work together to create a STEM learning experience for their students.

The decision to structure the resource around the big question ‘Athlete or Machine?’ was taken to encourage STEM learning based on student led investigation and problem solving.

In order to answer the big question, students must identify the factors that influence the bob skeleton and then investigate each one of these factors through practical, mathematical and scientific activities.

Through these activities students will gradually develop an understanding of the sport of bob skeleton and the factors that are key to success in the sport. When all the activities have been completed, students should be able to provide a sophisticated and justified answer to the big question.

The following activities been written to be used by students with support from their STEM teachers depending on the students’ abilities.

The sport of bob skeleton

The bob skeleton event involves sliding head first on a sled down an ice covered track.

The sled has no controls and athletes travel at high speeds just a few centimetres from the icy and unforgiving surface of the track.

Bob skeleton tracks are about 1500 m long and can have a vertical drop of over 150 m. Tracks can have up to 20 curves and athletes can experience five times the force of gravity as they hurtle towards the bottom.

Britain has one of the top international teams and has won more than its fair share of competitions and medals. For example:

Britain’s Bob Skeleton Winners...

  • Amy Williams MBE Olympic Gold Medallist, Vancouver 2010
  • Kristan Bromley World Champion 2008 World Cup Series Champion 2008 & 2004 European Champion 2008, 2005 & 2004
  • Shelley Rudman Olympic Silver Medallist, Turin 2006 World Cup Silver Medallist 2009 & 2010 European Champion 2009 2nd World Cup 2011 Series Overall
  • Adam Pengilly World Championship Silver Medallist 2009

Useful links

Amy WIlliams' web site

Chris Evans is coached by Amy Williams

Video of womens skeleton - Run 3 and 4 - Complete events - Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games

  1. Information about the track 0:01:55
  2. Athlete's view of the track 0:02:55
  3. Amy Williams' run: 0:05:02 - 0::07:27
Information about bob skeleton from sport's international giverning body the FIBT

British bob skeleton team site


The Big Question

Your challenge is to answer and justify the big question:

Athlete or machine? Which is more important in the bob skeleton event?

The following list identifies the factors that might influence the speed an athlete and their bob skeleton sled can travel down a track:

  • Weight
  • The athlete’s shape
  • The athlete’s position
  • Aerodynamic lift
  • Steering
  • Clothing and equipment
  • Starting
  • Corners
  • Ergonomics (how the body fits a product)
  • Track incline (the slope down the length of the track)
  • Friction on the ice Aerodynamic drag (air resistance)
  • Tuning the characteristics of the skeleton
  • Material choice
  • Sled runners


  1. Complete ACTIVITY 1 to investigate the factors that influence the sport of bob skeleton 2.
  2. Complete ACTIVITY 2 which explains how to present your answer to the big question
  3. Complete ACTIVITY 3 to see if your answer to the big question matches that of bob skeleton World Champion and engineer, Kristan Bromley

Amy Williams video

Video Image

The action hots up on the ice for run 3 and 4 of the women's skeleton event at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games.