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

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

Quick Look

Grade Level: 4 (3-5)

Choose From: 6 lessons and 7 activities

Subject Areas: Geometry, Physical Science, Problem Solving, Reasoning and Proof, Science and Technology

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
Copyright © (left) 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved. (right) US Department of Transportation http://www.tfhrc.gov/pubrds/julaug99/topten.htm

Summary

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.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

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.

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.

Educational Standards

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

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object. (Grade 3 ) More Details

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    This Performance Expectation focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
    Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
    Plan and conduct an investigation collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, using fair tests in which variables are controlled and the number of trials considered.

    Alignment agreement:

    Science investigations use a variety of methods, tools, and techniques.

    Alignment agreement:

    Each force acts on one particular object and has both strength and a direction. An object at rest typically has multiple forces acting on it, but they add to give zero net force on the object. Forces that do not sum to zero can cause changes in the object's speed or direction of motion. (Boundary: Qualitative and conceptual, but not quantitative addition of forces are used at this level.)

    Alignment agreement:

    Objects in contact exert forces on each other.

    Alignment agreement:

    Cause and effect relationships are routinely identified.

    Alignment agreement:

  • Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 3 - 5 ) More Details

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    This Performance Expectation focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
    Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
    Generate and compare multiple solutions to a problem based on how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the design problem.

    Alignment agreement:

    Research on a problem should be carried out before beginning to design a solution. Testing a solution involves investigating how well it performs under a range of likely conditions.

    Alignment agreement:

    At whatever stage, communicating with peers about proposed solutions is an important part of the design process, and shared ideas can lead to improved designs.

    Alignment agreement:

    Engineers improve existing technologies or develop new ones to increase their benefits, to decrease known risks, and to meet societal demands.

    Alignment agreement:

  • Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost. (Grades 3 - 5 ) More Details

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    Do you agree with this alignment?

    This Performance Expectation focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
    Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
    Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process, or system and includes several criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

    Alignment agreement:

    Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account.

    Alignment agreement:

    People's needs and wants change over time, as do their demands for new and improved technologies.

    Alignment agreement:

  • Multiply or divide to solve word problems involving multiplicative comparison, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem, distinguishing multiplicative comparison from additive comparison. (Grade 4 ) More Details

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More Curriculum Like This

Engineering: Simple Machines

Students are introduced to the six types of simple machines — the wedge, wheel and axle, lever, inclined plane, screw, and pulley — in the context of the construction of a pyramid, gaining high-level insights into tools that have been used since ancient times and are still in use today.

Simple Machines and Modern Day Engineering Analogies

Students apply the mechanical advantages and problem-solving capabilities of six types of simple machines (wedge, wheel and axle, lever, inclined plane, screw, pulley) as they discuss modern structures in the spirit of the engineers and builders of the great pyramids.

Pyramid Building: How to Use a Wedge

Students learn how simple machines, including wedges, were used in building both ancient pyramids and present-day skyscrapers. In a hands-on activity, students test a variety of wedges on different materials (wax, soap, clay, foam).

Slide Right on by Using an Inclined Plane

Students explore building a pyramid, learning about the simple machine called an inclined plane. They also learn about another simple machine, the screw, and how it is used as a lifting or fastening device.

Unit Schedule

Other Related Information

(optional: Show students the What Is Engineering? video)

Contributors

See individual lessons and activities.

Copyright

© 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

Acknowledgements

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.

Last modified: February 12, 2019

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