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Pulleys

Pulleys are the basis of the modern machines we use every day. Engineers harness the power of pulleys by designing processes and mechanisms that help us achieve difficult tasks.

Thousands of years ago, early engineers used pulleys to help with construction of structures of monumental proportions, such as aqueducts, monuments and even pyramids. Today, we use pulleys to perform a variety of useful everyday tasks like opening window blinds or operating a garage door.

Engineers combine multiple pulleys into a pulley system in order to either redirect the force or reduce the amount of force required to lift an object. A pulley is one of the six simple machines that help make difficult tasks possible by leveraging the engineering phenomenon of mechanical advantage of the design.

A pulley is a system of rope looped over one or more wheels to make it easier to lift heavy objects. Pulling the rope downward creates an upward force on the load.

There are three basic systems of pulleys:

  • A fixed pulley has a wheel that is secured in a single spot and changes the direction of the force needed to lift an object. The pulley itself stays in place while the load moves with the rope.
  • A movable pulley has a pulley attached to the object; one end of the rope is attached to a fixed point and the other end of the rope is free.
  • A compound pulley is a combination of a fixed and movable pulley to maximize the mechanical advantage of the system.
Understanding how pulleys work allows modern engineers to design machines like elevators, cranes, bulldozers and more.

Pull your students' attention with the resources below to help them make sense of how pulleys impact our world and engineering!

A depiction of a pulley

Pulley Curricula

The engaging resources from TeachEngineering featured here, by grade band, exemplify pulley curricula.

Grades K-2
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Grades 3-5
  • Solid Rock to Building Block
    Solid Rock to Building Block

    preview of 'Solid Rock to Building Block' Activity

    Students continue their pyramid building journey, acting as engineers to determine the appropriate wedge tool to best extract rock from a quarry and cut into pyramid blocks. Using sample materials (wax, soap, clay, foam) representing rock types that might be found in a quarry, they test a variety of...

  • Powerful Pulleys
    Powerful Pulleys

    preview of 'Powerful Pulleys' Lesson

    Students learn how a pulley can be used to change the direction of applied forces and move/lift extremely heavy objects, and the powerful mechanical advantages of using a multiple-pulley system. Students perform a simple demonstration to see the mechanical advantage of using a pulley, and they ident...

  • Pulley'ing Your Own Weight
    Pulley'ing Your Own Weight

    preview of 'Pulley'ing Your Own Weight' Activity

    Using common materials (spools, string, soap), students learn how a pulley can be used to easily change the direction of a force, making the moving of large objects easier. They see the difference between fixed and movable pulleys, and the mechanical advantage gained with multiple/combined pulleys. ...

  • The Power of Mechanical Advantage
    The Power of Mechanical Advantage

    preview of 'The Power of Mechanical Advantage' Activity

    Students learn about the mechanical advantage offered by pulleys in an interactive and game-like manner. Using a LEGO® MINDSTORMS® robotics platform and common hardware items, students build a mechanized elevator system.

  • Engineering: Simple Machines
    Engineering: Simple Machines

    preview of 'Engineering: Simple Machines' Lesson

    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.

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Grades 6-8
  • The Advantage of Machines
    The Advantage of Machines

    preview of 'The Advantage of Machines' Lesson

    In this lesson, students learn about work as defined by physical science and see that work is made easier through the use of simple machines. Already encountering simple machines everyday, students will learn about their widespread uses in improving everyday life.

  • A Simple Solution for the Circus
    A Simple Solution for the Circus

    preview of 'A Simple Solution for the Circus' Activity

    In this activity, students are challenged to design a contraption using simple machines to move a circus elephant into a rail car.

  • Just Plane Simple
    Just Plane Simple

    preview of 'Just Plane Simple' Lesson

    This lesson introduces students to three of the six simple machines used by many engineers. These machines include the inclined plane, the wedge and the screw.

  • Tools and Equipment, Part I
    Tools and Equipment, Part I

    preview of 'Tools and Equipment, Part I' Activity

    Students act as engineers creating a design for a ramp at a construction site by measuring four different inclined planes and calculating the ideal mechanical advantage versus the actual mechanical advantage of each.

  • Machines and Tools, Part II
    Machines and Tools, Part II

    preview of 'Machines and Tools, Part II' Activity

    In this activity, students gain first-hand experience with the mechanical advantage of pulleys. Students are given the challenge of helping save a whale by moving it from an aquarium back to its natural habitat into the ocean.

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Grades 9-12
  • Simple Machines and the Rube Goldberg Challenge
    Simple Machines and the Rube Goldberg Challenge

    preview of 'Simple Machines and the Rube Goldberg Challenge' Maker Challenge

    Students research and learn about simple machines and other mechanisms through learning about a Rube Goldberg machine. Student teams design and build their own Rube Goldberg devices that incorporate at least six simple machines. This project is open-ended with much potential for creativity and fun.

  • Splash, Pop, Fizz: Rube Goldberg Machines
    Splash, Pop, Fizz: Rube Goldberg Machines

    preview of 'Splash, Pop, Fizz: Rube Goldberg Machines' Activity

    Refreshed with an understanding of the six simple machines; screw, wedge, pully, incline plane, wheel and axle, and lever, student groups receive materials and an allotted amount of time to act as mechanical engineers to design and create machines that can complete specified tasks.

  • Flying T-Shirts
    Flying T-Shirts

    preview of 'Flying T-Shirts' Activity

    During this engineering design/build project, students investigate many different solutions to a problem. Their design challenge is to find a way to get school t-shirts up into the stands during home sporting events. They follow the steps of the engineering design process to design and build a usabl...

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