Free Simple Machine Unit Study

This is a five week free simple machine unit study perfect for kids in grades 3rd-5th which can be adapted to work for older or younger children. Each lesson connects an application of simple machines  to a period of history. This combined study is designed to spark interest that will lead to further study of history and simple machines based on the interests of the student. Don't be afraid to do research and take the learning in a new direction.

The lever, inclined plane, screw, wedge, wheel and axle and pulley are commonly thought of as the six or seven types of simple machines, when in reality there are only really three different types of simple machines. The wheel and axle, lever and inclined plane. The pulley is an extension of a wheel and axle and the screw and wedge are an extension of an inclined plane.

Here are the three different types of simple machines.

  • Lever
  • Inclined Plane, Screw, Wedge
  • Wheel and Axle, Pulley

Week 1: Stonehenge - Wheel

Week 2: Hanging Gardens of Babylon - Pulley

Week 3: Hanging Gardens of Babylon - Archimedes Screw

Week 4: Snowman - Inclined Plane

Week 5: Assyrians - Wheel and Lever

Week 1: Stonehenge - Wheel

Learn about Stonehenge and make a simple machine similar to the type which may have been used to move the enormous blocks to Stonehenge.

Although the exact purpose of Stonehenge and how it was built remains a mystery, there is much that is known. Read chapter 11 of Our Island Story (a narrative book for children on the history of England). Watch the documentary Secrets of Stonehenge.

Built around the year 3000 BC by stone age people living in Brittan, Stonehenge is aligned with the sun during the winter and summer solstices. In ancient times, stone was a symbol of the dead and wood was a symbol of life. Henges (circular structures) were built of both. While nothing but the post holes remain of the wooden henges, the remains of many stone henges can still be seen in the British Isles today. It's likely that the henges were locations where special religious ceremonies took place.

Coincidentally, hundreds of carved stone balls which date to the same time period in which Stonehenge was constructed have been discovered in Scotland. Historians have puzzled for years over the function of the balls. Recently, one researcher noticed that nearly all of the balls were constructed to a precise diameter of 2.75 inches and proposed a theory that they functioned as bearings in simple machines.

Based upon this theory, historians constructed a replica system which could have been used to move the large stones at Stonehenge. Make a much simpler version of the simple machine using tennis balls, and pieces of wood.

Since the carved stone balls are similar in size to tennis balls, place several tennis balls between two channels of narrow wooden beams.

Next place a folded up table or sheet of plywood on top of the tennis balls for a platform. Test the system to see if the table plywood can be easily moved.
Add weight to the table and move your materials along the track.

Try testing heavier objects. Can a small person move a large load?

Week 2: Hanging Gardens of Babylon - Pulleys

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Built during the second Babylonian Empire, the legend says that the gardens were a gift from Nebuchadnezzar II to his wife.

There are several mysteries about this ancient wonder, but one has to do with water. One theory says that the gardens were watered using a system of pulleys. Create a pulley system like one that may have been used to water the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Set-up a goal for your pulley system such as using the pulleys and materials on the left to lift light-weight balls from the base of the stairs to the blue Ishtar Gate.

Work on solving problems such as how will the portion of the string with the cup attached pass through the pulley?
How will the pulleys stay in place. Tape?

Try different solutions before deciding on a finished system. One solution may be introducing new materials with wheels instead of the provided pulleys.

Spend time working out a solution. Don't be afraid to try different materials and suggestions from all team members.

Week 3: Hanging Gardens of Babylon - Archimedes Screw

 Last week a pulley system was created like one that may have been used to water the hanging gardens of Babylon. Another theory says that the gardens were watered using Archimedes Screws several hundred years before Archimedes, the Greek inventor of the Archimedes screw lived. An Archimedes screw is a simple machine used to lift material from a low point to a high point by increasing the distance thereby lessening the steepness.

This Archimedes screw is located at the Playmobil Fun Park in Germany. Kids can spend hours moving material around in this play pit.

Create an Archimedes screw.

Begin by cutting a hole and the end off an empty water bottle.

Cut six circles out of stiff paper to fit inside the water bottle.

Cut a slot in the circles and put them onto a skewer.

Tape them together to form a spiral.

Stretch the spiral out and tape to the skewer to be held in place.

Test the screw with cereal. Modify it to get it working. You may have some of these issues.
The cereal gets caught in the tape joints of the disks.
The disks are not spread out far enough.
Many disks are too small so the cereal falls back to the bottom before it can be raised to the top.

Fix the issues so that each screw can successfully lift at least one piece of cereal.
Budget about two and a half hours for reworking the screws to get them to work. This is a challenging project and a true lesson in engineering, science, history, and patience.

Week 4: Snowman - Inclined Plane

How would you get the middle snowball in position on the tall snowman? This is an awesome winter kid challenge. How do you raise a large snowball three feet off the ground?

Here is one solution. Before the bases of the first two snowmen become snowmen, use those structures  as a ramp. Roll the snowball up the ramp into place on the tall snowman. This is an inclined plane simple machine.

Week 5: Assyrians - Wheel and Lever

The Assyrians were masters of war. Sargon II paid his army and supplied them with armor, food and horses. Horses were so valuable that killing them was highly discouraged. Instead they were captured. Sennacherib lead the Assyrians to destroy the city of Babylon and enslave the Jews using his highly trained horsemen, siege towers, chariots and battering rams. Chariots, battering rams and siege towers all make use of simple machines. Study the Assyrians and build a battering ram, chariot and a siege tower.

Chariots contain wheels and axles. During the time of the Assyrians the wheels of the chariot were moved from the rear of the vehicle to the center. This great advancement allowed the Assyrians to place an additional man in their chariots which gave them a significant battle advantage.

Battering rams also contain wheels and the ram mechanism is a lever. A lever helps people do work through the use of a pivot point. In this case the load is hung from two ropes to enable the operator to move it more easily.

Siege towers sometimes contained battering rams and wheels. This one does not. They were used to breech city walls.

There are many different versions of siege towers, battering rams and chariots which were used in the numerous battles between the Assyrians, Hittites and Babylonians. Combine history and science as you explore these weapons of ancient warfare.

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