Curricular Unit: Evolutionary Engineering: Simple Machines from Pyramids to Skyscrapers

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado Boulder

Two photos: Two enormous, pointed sand-covered Egyptian pyramids. The Empire State Building towering over New York City.
Simple machines from pyramids to skyscrapers!
Copyright © (left) 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved. (right) US Department of Transportation


Simple machines are devices with few or no moving parts that make work easier, and which people have used to provide mechanical advantage for thousands of years. Students learn about the wedge, wheel and axle, lever, inclined plane, screw and pulley in the context of the construction of a pyramid, gaining insights into tools that have been used since ancient times and are still important today. Through numerous hands-on activities, students imagine themselves as ancient engineers building a pyramid. Student teams evaluate and select a construction site, design a pyramid, perform materials calculations, test a variety of cutting wedges on different materials, design a small-scale cart/lever transport system to convey building materials, experiment with the angle of inclination and pull force on an inclined plane, see how a pulley can change the direction of force, and learn the differences between fixed, movable and combined pulleys. While learning the steps of the engineering design process, students practice teamwork, creativity and problem solving.

Engineering Connection

Engineers are experts at understanding the mechanical advantages gained by the use of simple machines. In so many everyday applications—the design of structures, machines, products and tools—simple machines make our lives and work easier. The same physical principles and mechanical advantages of simple machines used by ancient engineers to build pyramids are exploited by today's engineers to construct modern structures such as houses, bridges and skyscrapers. Simple machines and combinations of simple machines are also important and pervasive in our modern world in the form of common devices used by everyone—wheelbarrows, bicycles, crowbars, shovels, highway ramps, jackhammers, zippers, screws, jar lids, car jack, window blind controls, rock climbing gear, gym equipment, elevators, hand truck/dolly. These complex modern devices perform much work for very little power. The student pyramid building experience parallels the modern-day engineering design and construction process, which employs the engineering design process, teamwork, creativity and problem solving.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

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Unit Overview

The six simple machines are introduced in Lesson 1, examined individually in more depth in Lessons 2-5, and summarized in Lesson 6. Overview of topics by lesson: 1) overview of six types of simple machine and introduction of pyramid building scenario, starting with site selection 2) wedges, 3) wheel and axle, and lever 4) inclined plane/ramp, and screw 5) pulleys 6) use the engineering design process and knowledge of six simple machines to a design/build project.

Unit Schedule


See individual lessons and activities.


© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and the National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.