Why Are We Learning This? Teaching Simple Machines to Understand the World

Simple machines are an integral part of daily life. From the tire and axle on your bike to the door wedge in the classroom, these tools are everywhere.

Helping students understand simple machines is an important lesson not only when teaching physics and mathematics, but in history, society and culture as a whole. Here’s how to explain the importance of simple machines through fun activities that will serve students for life.

What are Simple Machines and Why Do They Matter?

The six simple machines are the pulley, the lever, the wedge, the inclined plane, the screw and the wheel and axle. They are important to learn about not only because they’re used in daily life, but because learning about them requires reading, math and critical thinking skills, explains Jan Bernard at Dragon’s Den Curriculum. 

Students often think of machines as complex, motor-powered devices. When introducing young students to simple machines, it may help to explain how they arose before modern technology existed — and why they’re still important today. The learning blog Scratch Garden points out that, before electricity, televisions and phones, people had to devise simple solutions to common challenges. Simple machines were created to help move, lift and break things. Without them, society wouldn’t have advanced to the place it is today.

Take the Egyptian pyramids, for example. Using inclined planes was likely an essential aspect of getting stones up to the top of pyramids in order to build them, explains the team at Ducksters education site.

The history of the wheel and axle is another interesting story: It is believed that it was invented around 5,000 ago and remains one of the most important inventions of the human race. Even the bicycle, which as been used for centuries, relies on multiple types of simple machines in order to work properly. These facts can intrigue students and overlap with other lessons in history and social studies.

teaching simple machines

Careers That Rely on Simple Machines

Helping students understand the role of simple machines in future careers can also pique their interest. Engineering is one area of study that requires a strong understanding of simple machines. According to a lesson plan on Teach Engineering, created the University of Colorado, simple machines help engineers design and implement solutions that improve society.

“The same physical principles and mechanical advantages of simple machines used by ancient engineers to build pyramids are employed by today’s engineers to construct modern structures such as houses, bridges and skyscrapers,” they write.

Moreover, simple machines are an invaluable tool for helping engineers solve everyday challenges. They provide a mechanical advantage that makes it easier to get more work done in less time.

Construction and home improvement is another area that requires a knowledge of simple machines. When building a home, simple machines like wheelbarrows, with their wheel and axle, are used to carry items, says JB Bartkowiak at Building Moxie. Even a doorknob is simply a wheel and axle machine. Screws are simple machines, as are shims — wedges used in installing doors, windows and cabinets. Levers in the home include doors, brooms and toilet seats.

Mechanics need to understand simple machines of course, explains Maddy Martin at Your Mechanic. While the car itself is a complex machine, it’s comprised of many simple machines. “Automobiles contain many stand alone simple machines – the steering wheel consists of the wheel and axle, while the shifting in automatic cars is controlled by levers,” she writes. 

Consider the role of a parking brake, which is a simple form of a lever. A car jack is another example of a simple machine. Even knowing how to drive a car (something all young students aspire to do one day) requires an understanding of these simple machines.

teaching simple machines

Teaching Students About Simple Machines

Simple machines tie in well with units about work, energy and motion, points out the team at Idaho Public TV. Lessons on Sir Issac Newton, who defined our modern understanding of force and motion, can cross both science and history. Helping students understand the importance of work — the energy required to move an object — paints a picture for what simple machines do. Lessons on Rube Goldberg can also overlap with lesson on simple machines. Asking students to make a Rube Goldberg machine is a fun, hands-on activity that can follow up with lessons about simple machines.

Once students have a strong grasp on what simple machines are, they’ll be able to spot them everywhere. Teachers can facilitate this process by bringing in some simple tools designed to make certain things easier, suggests the State Government of Victoria Department of Education and Training

Tools like a bottle opener, a crowbar or pliers can be used to discuss the role of simple machines and human force. Ask students to identify the machine in each tool. Create a discussion around how the simple machine is used to make a specific function easier. This exercise could be a great introduction to identifying the different types of simple machines, and how each one functions.

Science educator Drewe Warndorff offers another lesson for using household examples to teach simple machines. She suggests creating six different stations where each simple machine is placed inside a brown paper bag. Items can include scissors, an ice cream scooper, a set of dollhouse stairs, a screw, a toy car and a photo of a pulley. 

Start by asking students how they define the word machine, asking them to spend a few minutes noting their responses. Then, students go to each station and fill out a chart noting what they observe and what they think the machine is used for. The observations are then used to determine the use of each machine, which leads into a discussion about them.

For kindergarten and first grade students, the playground is a great place to set up simple machines. Teacher Kristin Smith provides step-by-step instructions for introducing students to simple machines on the playground. She shows students how they can work together to build and use levers, pulleys and wheels using everyday objects like wood, plates and rope. 

This interactive lesson plan encourages group collaboration and hands-on learning. It also demonstrates how basic materials can be used to create a simple machine, and why that simple machine is important for getting work done.

Another activity idea that asks students to build simple machines comes from teacher Darla Meyers. During an activity learning about force and motion, students in groups are assigned a machine to make a machine of their choice (the team assigned to make a wedge made axes, for example). Each is presented to class and displayed. Asking students to explain their process of building the machine helps reinforce how it works and why it is important.

Images by: Olesia Bilkei/©123RF.com, dolgachov/©123RF.com, ababaka/©123RF.com

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