Simple machines are an important science concept for students to explore because they can be observed in mechanisms all around us and can seem quite magical as they are used to make our routine tasks so much easier. Whether individually exploring the basic simple machines (wheel and axle, wedge, screw, lever, pulley, inclined plane, linkages, etc.) to understand their practical uses or combining them to create an outlandish Rube Goldberg machine, simple machines are super fun to experiment with.
We like to begin by discussing simple machines and doing some hands-on explorations of existing examples (i.e. window blinds, door stoppers and ramps, door knob, etc). You can add challenge by doing a scavenger hunt type inquiry activity where you give students 5-10 minutes to locate and identify as many simple machines as they can in the room. Having them create quick drawings of the mechanisms using arrows to illustrate force and movement also helps them to understand and communicate the basic science principles that allow the simple machine to function.
Once a working knowledge of simple machines is established you can move on to the magic of building mechanisms. We like to make ours out of recyclable materials, such as cardboard. It’s a great way to show students how they can transform and “upcycle” materials that were going to be thrown away. We collect useful recyclable materials all year for these types of projects and you’d be surprised how quickly you can amass an invaluable collection of unique objects that are just waiting for a new “life”.
Cardboard is our number one favorite material so we save almost all of our shipping boxes and pantry boxes (cereal boxes, cracker boxes, tissue boxes, etc.). We also like collecting empty toilet paper tubes, empty paper towel tubes, plastic soda bottles, plastic caps, plastic apple sauce and yogurt cups, plastic berry containers, egg cartons, and coffee canisters. It is super important that all of the plastic materials are rinsed and air dried otherwise they grow mold or attract ants (and that really isn’t the goal of this science experiment). 🙂
We also purchase inexpensive new items like popsicle sticks, toothpicks, straws (plain, bendable, smoothie, etc.), and bamboo skewers (cost about $1 per package). Though these items are technically new, they are important tools for adding increased functionality to our upcycled materials because they easily become axles and structural supports.
Try some of our Simple Machine activities:
- Cardboard Automata Sculptures
- Balloon-Powered Vehicles and Rocket Cars
- Cardboard Catapult Levers
- Cardboard Arcades
Want to learn more? Check out these resources:
- The Kids’ Book of Simple Machines: Cool Projects and Activities that Make Science Fun by Kelly Doudna
- Gear Up! Marvelous Machine Projects by Keith Good
- Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry Simple Machine Game
- PBS Kids Goldburger To Go Game
- PBS Design Squad’s Simple Machines Resources (videos, activities, and more)