STEM Simple Machines

A cross-section of important mechanical principles and their physical effect

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Ready-made lesson plans STEM Simple Machines

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Lesson plans for the product STEM Simple Machines

What are simple machines?

The term “simple machines” (also referred to as force-saving, force-converting or labour-saving machines) covers tools or mechanical devices that serve to convert a force or optimise the effect of a force. Examples of simple machines are the rope, the lever, the pulley and the inclined plane (wedge), which are found in some combination in almost every power machine. [1]
They play a large but often unrecognised role in the environment. Wheelchair ramps, the screw thread, the lacing of a shoe or the door handle are examples. By dealing with simple machines, physics lessons help pupils to perceive their environment differently and to recognise the physical principles of simple machines like a pattern in multiple everyday applications. [2]

Simple machines are a traditional topic in physics lessons that is often in the curriculum at the beginning of secondary level I. Sometimes the topic is recommended for general science at primary school. The examination of simple machines is justified because of their high relevance to the world of life and the culturally anchored knowledge that is linked to them. [3]

The following topics and technical terms are usually dealt with in combination, using several, quite different application models from everyday life:

  • Crank gears
  • Cardan joints
  • Eccentric
  • Parallel crank
  • Spur gears
  • Toggle mechanisms
  • Counting
  • Pawls
  • Rope winches
  • Pulleys
  • Differential gears
  • Worm and spindle gears
  • Forces and their measurement

The models, from bus windscreen wipers to aircraft landing gear, from counters to vending machines, provide comprehensive insights into various mechanical principles and the basics of physical action thanks to their simple design and easy-to-understand explanations.

The task sheets are formulated according to the educational plans in a skills-oriented way. The objective is to control, reflect and evaluate your own thinking when solving problems and thus build up new knowledge. Problems are to be recognised, problem-solving strategies developed and applied.

  • Where are the constructional weak points in a structure?
  • How can these be solved?
  • Why are certain details solved in this way and not differently?
  • Are there alternatives? What would the consequences be?

In this way, real technical knowledge is imparted – in a playful and easy way, but in depth according to your wishes and needs. Along the way, spatial awareness, logical thinking, problem analysis, physics basics and the understanding of technology used every day are trained and experienced in experiments carried out by the children themselves.


Simple machines were systematically recorded in antiquity in a manuscript by Heron of Alexandria, a Greek mathematician and engineer in the first century AD. In addition to wheel, pulley, lever and wedge, Heron also listed the screw. Forgotten in the Middle Ages, his text was rediscovered in an Arabic translation during the Renaissance. The engineers of that era added the inclined plane to simple machines. What these have in common is that they are the basic building blocks of any more complex machine mechanics – we would tend to call them machine elements today. They seem almost a little trivial to us in the information age. And yet they are the foundation on which technical civilisation was built. [4]

Further information

[2], [3] Simple machines, physics lessons | Issue no. 169/2019, Friedrich Verlag
[4] Niels Boeing, Simple machines as a foundation of modern times, Werkspuren 2|2013