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Simple Machines - Science Unit Study

by Beverly S. Krueger

Simple machines really are simple but profoundly useful. They’re the machines that man has used throughout history to do jobs that are too big for him. When we think of machines, we might think of the automobile or the printing press. Simple machines are much simpler than these machines. In fact, most complex machines are made from many simple machines. Simple machines include the incline plane, wedge, screw, pulley, lever, and wheel and axle. A simple machine requires energy to work. Originally, that energy would come from the effort of man, animals, sometimes a millstream, or the wind. Throughout man’s history his understanding of simple machines has developed and grown. Today we harness the energy from coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear power to provide the energy needed to make our machines run.

Why We Use Simple Machines

A simple machine has few or no moving parts and makes work easier. When we study something from a scientific perspective, we want to use the scientific terminology and scientific way of organizing our ideas. When we talk about simple machines, it’s important to understand the meaning of work. To me work can mean my son taking out the trash or completing his math homework. My husband goes to work every day. But when we’re talking about simple machines and work, we’re talking about something different. Work is the amount of force required to move an object a specified distance. Force is a push or a pull that causes a change in motion of an object. That means it can be used to start an object moving or stop an object that is already moving.

WORK = FORCE X DISTANCE

Simple machines are designed to make doing this type of work easier. Since we’re looking at work from a scientific perspective, we also need to use the scientific terms for measuring the effectiveness of our machines on making work easier. We measure force in Newtons, distance in meters, and work in Joules. It works like this:

1 Newton of Force x 1 meter of Distance = 1 Joule of Work
1N x 1m = 1J or 1N-m = 1J
(Note: N-m is Newton-meter. When you multiply two variables expressed in different terms, Newtons and meters, you combine the terms into one—Newton-meter or N-m.)

If we applied 10 Newtons of force to move an object 5 meters, that would equal 50 Joules of work.

10N x 5m = 50N-m = 50 J

Why does it take energy or work to move an object? There are forces that oppose movement that must be overcome. These include gravity and friction. You can’t vary the amount of work required to move an object, but you can 1) change the amount of force needed by changing the distance or 2) change the distance required by changing the amount of force applied. Think of the space shuttle blasting off into space. Engineers have provided the appropriate amount of force through rocket engines to get the space shuttle into orbit around the earth. If they used less force, the shuttle wouldn’t make it into orbit. The shuttle would be lifted a shorter distance. Simple machines make it possible to change either the force applied in moving an object or the distance allowed to move the object. They also make life easier by changing the direction or type of force needed to make a job easier.

Inclined Plane

An inclined plan is a sloped surface like a ramp that allows you to move something to a higher elevation. If you were to try to move a 30-pound box to a height over your head, it would be difficult to lift it straight up. It’s much easier to push the box up a ramp to the same height. The longer the ramp, the less effort (force) you’ll need to move it. You’ll notice this on wheelchair ramps. The longer a ramp and the less the grade of a ramp the easier for those in wheelchairs to get up them. That’s true whether the wheelchair is motorized or not. We use steps for the same reason. Pulling oneself up from floor to floor in a building without steps is decidedly more difficult than using steps or even an elevator. The elevator is easier for us because we’re not personally providing the force to make the elevator go up. With steps or a ramp, the inclined plane makes the distance in our equation greater so that the force required can be less.

inlcined plane

wedgeWedge

A wedge is similar to an inclined plane, but it works by being moved and it has one or two sloped surfaces. An axe is a wedge. Like an axe splits wood, a wedge moves two objects apart from one another or splits one object into two. The downward force of a wedge causes a horizontal force to be applied to the object. With an axe, the downward motion of the axe splits a log causing the two pieces to fall on either side. The length and width of the wedge determine how much force will be applied. A shorter wedge is faster, but it requires a greater amount of force. The wedge is an example of a simple machine that can change the direction of a force. Rather than taking a log in both hands and trying to pull it apart, the wedge (axe) allows an easier downward motion to create the horizontal force that pushes the log apart.

screwScrew

If you look closely at a screw, you’ll see that it’s really one long spiraling inclined plane wrapped around a pole. We think of screws today as small metal pieces used to keep building projects together. But you’ll find the screw working in many other places. A screw can be used for moving large amounts of something like a grain auger moves grain or the Archimedes screw of ancient history moving water from a lake or river into irrigation ditches. Just as a screw holds drywall onto a wall, the screw found in a screw top lid will hold a lid on a jar. The screw has been used to create worm and worm gears that can be used to decrease the speed of a motor while increasing its torque.

Pulley

pulleyA pulley is a wheel grooved around its edge that allows a rope to wrap around it. A simple pulley allows you to move something in the opposite direction from the force you are applying. You attach one end of the rope to the object you wish to move. Hang the pulley and wrap the rope around the pulley. By pulling on the free end dangling down from the pulley, you’re able to lift the object. The amount of force required does not change. You still have to pull as hard. The distance is the length of the rope from the object on the ground to the pulley and back to down to the end of the rope.

There are many types of pulleys used in different situations. We’ve just described a single fixed pulley. A moveable pulley allows the pulley to move with the object being moved. A moveable pulley works like a second class lever, which we describe below. It allows the effort to be less than that required with a fixed pulley, but it also means that you’re lifting the pulley. That trade off may not be enough to justify using it, but when the load is really heavy it makes sense to use a moveable pulley. There are also compound pulleys that come in a variety of configurations that allow more changes in effort or direction of the pull. A block and tackle is an example of a compound pulley system. It too was invented by Archimedes and is used for lifting heavy loads.

Lever

When you think of a lever think of a teeter-totter. A lever is made from a rigid object and a fulcrum. The fulcrum can also be called the pivot point. The plank you sit on is the rigid object. The fulcrum is the metal bar under the center of the plank. The teeter-totter is designed to alternately lift two objects one on each end. It works best when those two objects are of similar weight. If not, the heavier of the two children must take pains not to allow the lighter child to slam into the ground and give assistance to get himself in the air.

The teeter-totter is a first class lever. In a first class lever, the fulcrum or pivot point is located between the force and the object being moved. In the case of a teeter-totter, the force and object moved change from end to end as each child takes a turn being raised into the air. A lever changes the direction of movement from the direction of the applied force. You push down on one end of a teeter-totter and the other end goes up.

A second class lever positions the fulcrum on one end opposite the force. The object to be moved is placed in between the fulcrum and the force. A door swinging on its hinges is an example. You open and close a door (apply the force) at the end away from the hinges. The hinges are the fulcrum. The load moved is the door itself.

A third class lever positions the load and fulcrum at opposite ends with the force applied between them. Your arm acts a third class lever whenever you move your forearm to raise something. The load is in your hand, the fulcrum is your elbow, and the force applied to raise the load is made by the muscle in your arm between your elbow and hand. A baseball bat is also a third class lever. The load (the baseball) is at one end of the bat, the fulcrum is the end of the bat, and your hands supply the force.

The different classes of levers have different advantages. The distance between the parts of a lever changes the effects of the lever. When you move the fulcrum of a first class lever closer to the force you can move the load faster and a greater distance, but it will take you more force to do it. When you move the fulcrum closer to the load in a first class lever, you can’t move the load as quickly or as far. A second class lever provides a gain in force. The closer the fulcrum is to the load the greater the increase in force. A third class lever doesn’t allow you to change the force required but it does give you greater speed. When you smack that ball with your baseball bat, the ball ends up going faster than the speed with which you swung the bat. The distance you swing the bat to strike the ball is shorter, so the force is greater and the ball travels farther and faster. When a baseball player bunts, he changes the way he holds the bat, so he won't get the speed or distance he would from a regular swing.

A teeter-totter is an easy to see lever, but we use levers all the time. A pair of scissors is two first class levers, which also use wedges. Play with a pair of scissors to see what I mean. A pair of pliers is two first class levers. A hammer used to hammer in a nail is a third class lever. You sweep the floor with that great third class lever, a broom.

levers

wheel and axleThe Wheel and Axle

This simple machine consists of a wheel with a handle attached to an axle which has a rope attached to its end. By turning the wheel, you turn the axle, which wraps the rope around the axle. Whatever is attached to the end of the rope will be moved. You get the work done without as much effort. You see this type of simple machine in old-fashioned wells to lower the bucket and draw up water. A wheel and axle are actually a kind of first class lever. The fulcrum is the center where the wheel and axle meet. The radius of each is the distance between the force (wheel) and the load (rope with object to lift).

Extending the Learning

Now that you understand the basics of simple machines, it's time to play with them. The following lists include a variety of kits that you can use to make your own models of simple machines. The online activities include actual animated activities and experiments you can try with your own materials. Finally, we've listed several books that would make good additions to a study on simple machines.

Science Activity Kits

Physics WorkshopPhysics Workshop the Science of Matter and Energy
Through the process of building 36 models and conducting subsequent experiments with each one, you will learn the fundamental laws of mechanical physics. Gravity, force, simple machines, acceleration, momentum, work and power are all demonstrated right in front of you — a hands-on approach that is fun and effective.
FischertechnikFischertechnik Kits
Fischertechnik kits have the advantage that when you build something with it, it doesn’t fall apart. The pieces lock in places. While the Universal kits we suggest are investments, you’ll find your children enjoying putting together machines and models that really work such as a dump truck that you can roll around without having it collapse. Motorized sets are also available. Advanced sets are used by adults in real world learning environments.
Fischertechnik Universal 2
This set comes with a wordless manual with instructions for making 48 models.
Fischertechnik Universal
This set comes with a wordless manual with instructions for making 24 models and a curriculum manual that uses the pieces to explain simple machines. This set is being discontinued. As Of July 2006, it was available from Fischertechnik at a discount and available at Timberdoodle. http://www.fischertechnik.com/
Timberdoodle offers great prices on a variety of other Fischertechnik sets.

Lego Pulley Mini SetLego Mini Kits
Lego sells mini sets for the following topics: gears, pulleys, wheels and axles, and levers. Each kit comes with two building cards with pictorial instructions, a plastic compartmentalized storage box, and a pictorial parts list. The basic kit costs $19.00 each. Kits including teacher’s guide with lesson plans cost $25.00.

Lego offers an online animated reference for use with its simple machine constructions, Constructopedia. Animations show working models of pulley and gear constructions.

Online Activities

ASPIRE – Simple and Complex Machines
In an unknown time and an uncharted place, the ASPIRE crew has accepted the challenge to assist in the completion of a city being constructed of massive stones. They must work without the advantage of modern technology. They have agreed to rely primarily on the use of the six simple machines to accomplish their mission.

Simple Machines Experiments
These are experiments and worksheets you can use at home. You will need to purchase materials, but many are available at your local hardware store.

Science Seesaw and Simple Machines
Exhibit resources for a Canada Science and Technology Museum.

The Elements of Machines
Expands from simple machines to various kinds of gears, cams, chains and belts, and ratchets.

The Case of the Balancing Frogs
The see-saw is a simple lever. An object at one end can be balanced by placing an object at the opposite end. To balance an object of a different weight, the object has to be either moved closer to the fulcrum or further away. Try balancing these frogs by placing a frog with the correct weight in the correct position on the see saw. Grades 5/6

Clunky clogs
Gears are wheels with teeth that mesh together to transfer movement. In a system of gears, small gears turn fast and large gears turn slower. When gears are meshed together, they turn in opposite directions. Play the game below to see how gears move when meshed together. Grades 5/6

Pick the Bits
To operate a lever, you must apply an effort. A lever has a fulcrum - a turning point. You need to apply an effort at one end to move a load at the other end. Try your skills at working out where the load, fulcrum, and effort are on the common levers. Grades 5/6

Science Technology and Engineering
Mechanical Systems Mechanical Systems
Includes a more detailed look at simple machines and why we use them.
Mechanical Systems Tests
A variety of activities you can do that demonstrate why we use particular kinds of simple machines.

How a Block and Tackle Work
In this edition of How Stuff Works take a look at how a block and tackle work, and examine several other force-multiplying devices!

How Gears Work
Gears are a fundamental part of just about any mechanical object -- if it has a motor, engine or spring, it probably has gears! Learn dozens of fascinating facts about gears!

Edheads Simple Machines Activities
Learn about simple and compound machines while you explore the House and Tool Shed!

Books to Read

Castle Under SiegeCastle Under Siege!: Simple Machines
by Andrew Solway
"The stonemason's wedge, the inclined plane of the castle road, the levers used in the drawbridge, the screw of the crossbow, the axles in the moving siege towers, the fulcrum in the catapult-these and many other terms are interspersed throughout the text." School Library Journal

How Do You Lift a Lion?How Do You Lift a Lion?
by Robert E. Wells
Provides a simple introduction to the use of levers, pulleys, and wheels to move heavy objects.

Janice VanCleave's MachinesJanice VanCleave's Machines: Mind-boggling Experiments You Can Turn Into Science Fair Projects
by Janice VanCleave
How is your forearm like a lever? What makes it easy to pull a flag up a flagpole? How can a windmill help to do work? Janice VanCleave's Machines includes 20 simple and fun experiments that allow you to discover the answers to these and many other questions, plus dozens of additional suggestions on how to develop your own science fair project. Learn how an elevator works using a box, string, a paper cup, and some coins; build a bubble machine with cardboard boxes, Styrofoam, and wire; and much more. All experiments use inexpensive materials and involve a minimum of preparation and clean up.
Science Experiments with Simple MachinesScience Experiments With Simple Machines
by Sally Nankivell-Aston amd Dorothy Jackson
Explores the properties of simple machines through experiments, using material readily available in most homes and schools.
Simple MachinesSimple Machines (Starting With Science)
by Adrienne Mason, Deborah Hodge, and the Ontario Science Centre
Thirteen experiments about the six simple machines -- the lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge and screw -- teach kids about basic science. Full-color photographs and step-by-step instructions clearly explain each activity, so that kids can make the most of the machines with minimal help from adults. Part of the Starting with Science series, Simple Machines encourages children to have fun as they learn basic science and fills a need for primary-level science resources.

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