Classroom Activity

Lesson Plan

Main Idea: Close observation and sketching lead to a better understanding of how simple machines work.

Learning Objectives: Observe a gadget closely from several angles while it operates. Identify the elements, the simple machines, that are combined to make the gadgets. Show how the moving parts in machines relate to and affect each other. Create a clear diagram of how a machine works.

Time: approx. 30 minutes with one machine per group

Materials: paper, pencils with erasers, a selection of small machines with visible working parts (the more you have, the better): egg beater, cork screw, car jack, can opener, garlic press, tongs, monkey wrench, hand drill, Vise-Grips, the mechanism from a music box, wind up toy, pencil sharpener, stapler

Teaching Tip: Encourage students to draw systematically, starting at one point and drawing each part and connection in order. Emphasize that this kind of drawing, a machine diagram, should show how the machine works. It is not important that their diagram look exactly like the machine, for example, getting the exact proportions for the parts is less important than showing how they connect to each other. Encourage students to experiment with sketching enlarged views and cut-away views to show parts that are very small or obscured by other parts. Leonardo often left out the casing and structure surrounding machines in his illustrations so he could show the workings more clearly.


  1. Have students prepare to work in small groups (2-5).
  2. Provide each group with one gadget to examine in detail. Suggest that students take turns operating the gadget while the others watch to see how each part moves.
  3. Challenge each group to have a discussion about the gadget. Invite them to investigate their own questions as well.
  4. Place the gadget at rest so that everyone in the group can see it and distribute paper, pencils, and erasers.
  5. Students should begin sketching diagrams of their gadgets. They should draw the gadget from their own point of view first. Later they can trade places and draw it from different points of view to show all working parts.
  6. When the diagrams are completed, students should add arrows and written notes to indicate directions of motion for each part, label the simple machines involved, and explain connections.
  7. Have students display and explain their diagrams to other groups.
  8. If time permits, give each group a different gadget to investigate and sketch.


What is the function of this gadget? How many moving parts does it have? How are the moving parts connected to each other? What does each moving part do in the gadget? Which parts are simple machines?

Advanced Activity

Ask students to get their parents involved in helping them locate examples of machine diagrams from home. The instructions provided by manufacturers with bicycles, kitchen appliances, tools, and lawn mowers often contain explanatory diagrams to help you understand these machines. Auto repair manuals also contain dozens of these diagrams. Many construction sets such as Lego® and K’NEX® also have similar kinds of diagrams to help you build particular toy designs.

When you have several diagrams from different sources, ask the students to compare them and discuss them using the following questions as starting points:

  • What are some similarities and differences between different diagrams?
  • Which diagrams do they think are the easiest to understand and the hardest to understand?
  • What techniques have the illustrators of the better diagrams used to make their work clearer?
  • What techniques can the students apply from these examples to make their own machine diagrams more understandable?

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