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Simple Machines

Simple machines make the things we use in everyday life function. Engineers use - and combine - simple machines to design complex devices to make our lives easier!

Simple machines are basic devices that help accomplish physical tasks with few or no moving parts. The six most common simple machines – inclined plane, wedge, screw, lever, pulley and wheel-and-axle – are designed to change the magnitude/direction of the force (remember, work = force x distance), ultimately making the task easier to perform.

The simple machines used by ancient engineers to construct the pyramids in Egypt and the Colosseum in Rome are the same ones used by engineers today to build roller-coasters, skyscrapers and bridges in our modern world. We encounter simple machines in our everyday lives in devices like crowbars, wheelbarrows and highway ramps. These simple machines leverage the unique phenomenon of mechanical advantage of the design and then engineers combine multiple simple machines to create more advanced tools like cars, bicycles, medical devices and 3D printers.

Check out the resources below filled with various sensemaking tasks grounded in exploring everyday phenomena through the use of simple machines!

Engineers make a world of difference

Simple Machines Curriculum

The TeachEngineering engaging resources featured here, by grade band, exemplify simple machines curriculum.

Grades K-2
  • An Introduction to Inclined Planes
    An Introduction to Inclined Planes

    preview of 'An Introduction to Inclined Planes' Lesson

    Students are introduced to the concept of simple tools and how they can make difficult or impossible tasks easier. They begin by investigating the properties of inclined planes and how implementing them can reduce the force necessary to lift objects off the ground.

  • The Benefits of Inclined Planes: Heave Ho!
    The Benefits of Inclined Planes: Heave Ho!

    preview of 'The Benefits of Inclined Planes: Heave Ho!' Activity

    Why does setting up an inclined plane on the back of a truck make it easier to load and unload? What's the difference between dragging an object up a slope versus lifting an object straight into the air? Have students learn about the engineering behind the practicalities of inclined planes.

Grades 3-5
  • Wheeling It In!
    Wheeling It In!

    preview of 'Wheeling It In!' Activity

    In this open-ended design activity, students use everyday materials—milk cartons, water bottles, pencils, straws, candy—to build small-scale transportation devices. They incorporate the use of two simple machines—a wheel and axle, and a lever—into their designs.

  • Simple Machines and Modern Day Engineering Analogies
    Simple Machines and Modern Day Engineering Analogies

    preview of 'Simple Machines and Modern Day Engineering Analogies' Lesson

    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.

  • Let's Move It!
    Let's Move It!

    preview of 'Let's Move It!' Lesson

    Students explore methods employing simple machines likely used in ancient pyramid building, as well as common modern-day material transportation. They learn about the wheel and axle as a means to transport materials from rock quarry to construction site.

  • Stack It Up!
    Stack It Up!

    preview of 'Stack It Up!' Activity

    Students analyze and begin to design a pyramid. Working in engineering teams, they perform calculations to determine the area of the pyramid base, stone block volumes, and the number of blocks required for their pyramid base.

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.

  • Design and Build a Rube Goldberg
    Design and Build a Rube Goldberg

    preview of 'Design and Build a Rube Goldberg ' Activity

    In this two-part activity, students design and build Rube Goldberg machines. This open-ended challenge employs the engineering design process and may have a pre-determined purpose, such as rolling a marble into a cup from a distance, or let students decide the purposes.

  • 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.

  • Trebuchet Design & Build Challenge
    Trebuchet Design & Build Challenge

    preview of 'Trebuchet Design & Build Challenge ' Activity

    Students work as teams of engineers to design and build their own trebuchets. They research how to build and test their trebuchets, evaluate their results, and present their results and design process to the class.

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.

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