Engineering Design – Wind Turbines

Exploring Renewables through Engineering Design – Wind Turbines

Building teacher capacity is always the number one driver for improving student outcomes. There is plenty of research, best known through the meta-studies of John Hattie, that education authorities across the globe have called upon to inform strategic directions and professional learning at local school levels.

This year I’m team teaching hands-on science with all of our K-6 staff to build capacity. This capacity could be in developing teacher confidence with inquiry-based design and make activities, enhancing science content awareness, or management and organisational strategies that enable a respectful and challenging learning space.

These lessons are over two days timetables a week apart, and importantly, have built in time for teacher reflection at the end of each session. Our leadership team has made a resource commitment to fund casual relief to enable sustained 1:1 reflection time immediately at the completion of the class session.

The essentials of this project are to collaboratively, in teams of two, prototype and make cardboard turbine blades that attach to a dowel and into a hub. The hub is placed onto a small generator and with a desk/floor fan provided with a ‘wind’ supply. If designed well and feathered (angles) correctly, the turbine blades spin and generate a small amount of voltage.

This project uses the ‘Kidwind’ set which is well known in the US where it originated. I purchased additional kits in Australia. More info on the equipment follows below.

I like these examples of design and make activities, as students respond to the physical, tactile process of making. I use the TMI process of Think-Make-Improve and want the students to engage emotionally with the task, and to graft in the process of ‘hard fun’ as Seymour Papert coined it. A paper on ‘Hard Fun’, can be found here.

The wind turbine activity can be backwards mapped into a number of strands and outcomes in the revised NSW K-10 Science Syllabus that will be formally implemented in 2019. The working technologically strand is now more appropriately termed design and production. In terms of content, there is scope to explore material and physical world outcomes across a number of stages and especially stage two and three. This two-page pdf summarises the revised strands and outcomes.

The sessions are run with a stage two (9-10yrs) age group and stage three would also be appropriate. In introducing the challenge and topic I purposely did not want to give too much away in the idea of turbine design. I had the class compare and contrast an image of an old rusty windmill and a modern turbine and discussed possible uses and operation, including the purpose of the spinning blades and possible sources of energy, both in and out, of the turbine.

I then set the challenge of making a working turbine using dowel, cardboard, tape and hub. The first challenge was simply to get the turbine moving. In session two the challenge was to generate a consistent voltage.

Then things got messy; as they should in an inquiry learning space! Lots of talking, reminders on collaboration and communication, the trialling of turbines. Cardboard and tape everywhere and a sense of student energy and focus. Groups came up to test their initial iterations – some were quite efficient and smooth from the outset, others had out of balance hubs with incorrectly spaced blades, while the blade designes themselves ranged from efficient, to too long, narrow, heavy or small.

After a shared reflection and discussion of successes, challenges and misconceptions, because after all the students are scientists, mathematicians and communicators in this learning moment, the students returned to construction.

In week two we connected a multimeter to the generator to measure mV output and this added a sense of competition. Turbines that produced a higher average voltage were well balanced with similar individual blades.

The takeaways from this activity included –

1. a strong sense of student engagement in and with the task

2. a persistence and commitment to achieve engineering design success through many iterations

3. evidence of teamwork, respect and the strong use of scientific metalanguage in group talk.

During teacher reflection time we talked about the structure of the task, teacher talk used and teacher modelled language, student support and how much to give and time management; which to me is one of the biggest challenges for many teachers.

The kit used was the Kidwind Basic available in Australia from  and from Kidwind outside.

While only one base kit is needed I have found it very helpful to buy multiple hubs (1 every 2/3 students) and dowels (up to five each team). This allows each team to have their own hub for the entire process. if students have to share hubs for testing, they become frustrated with having to remove their blades. The time management process is complicated.

Think – Make –  Improve!

Bottle Rocket Design Competition – NSW Aeronautical Velocity Challenge

This year students from stage 3 participated in the NSW Aeronautical Velocity Challenge – a competition designed to encourage STEM skills across bottle rockets and model planes for all ages and education sectors.

The winners were getting upwards of 125m in distance, which is very impressive. Mt Ousley PS has spent quite some time over the past few years using rocketry as a way to hook kids into loving science, maths and all things space. So it was great to join in this event.

While model engine rockets have a place in my program after visits to the Honeywell Educators@Spacecamp program,  I also love bottle rockets for the relative simplicity of teaching elements of design, maths and physics. With variables including fin and nose cone design, rocket mass and balance and air/water fuel balance, the opportunity arises for many iterations and tests to obtain maximum flight.

Our team ran with a simple 1.2L bottle, foam core fins, a weighted nose cone and a decorative mission patch which is a terrific way to incorporate elements of human endeavour, art and symbolism. Not the most evolutionary but a sound starting point for their first competition.

One of the best aspects of sharing in these days is getting to see how other teams approach the design process. Many primary and secondary schools were using 3D printers to design fins and nose cones. There were also quite a few jigs and spacers being used to carefully hot glue on the various components. Our team came away excitedly planning how they might approach future builds.

When it came to what mattered – the launches, they were a mix of long and impressive flight, some mid air collapses and a few with wayward direction due to design flaws with balance, fins, weight etc. Rocketry is a truly engaging STEM activity that offers wonderful design opportunities and a visible result as to success or otherwise.

Of course it’s always fun to launch, fire or blast a rocket and both teachers and students enjoy the experience. Importantly rocketry can be done safely with some basic attention to cutting and tool instruction and well considered launch and recovery procedures. Always learning!

Novel Engineering Update

One of my favourite and most powerful ways of motivating and enthusing students into STEM elements is through design challenges.


Novel Engineering out of TUFTS University have updated their resources and book list and the site now offers teachers a great opportunity to connect literature and texts to real life problem solving challenges. In having students construct solutions to challenges faced throughout texts then design and engineering opportunities can be considered, alongside responses to, and deeper engagement with various fiction texts.

Integrated design challenges and coding with Sphero and K’nex.

Learning through serious play…

I love the excitement that children express when faced with what, to an adult, might be considered a ‘ho-hum’ type of learning opportunity. It serves as a reminder to respect a child’s view of the world and the thought processes attached. The examples below exemplify this thinking and are fun and challenging engineering based challenges designed to enthuse and engage students.

These STEM based design learning tasks resonate with years 2-6 and utilise K’NEX pieces to design and make both a bridge and chariot that are tested using a Sphero robotic ball. These are both activities that any teacher can lead and they both offer entry points that enable success for all students.

I would also add that both of these activities are detailed on the Sphero SPRK Lightning Lab education website, accessible by a free educator account.

The Bridge

The bridge is another great design and make challenge. I always show Galloping Gertie, the Tacoma Narrows bridge disaster via Youtube to engage and hook the students into thinking about bridge design and engineering. The oohs and aahs alone are worth showing the footage.

The challenge is to span a distance via a bridge that Sphero can be driven or coded to cross. I like a span around 40cm as it is longer than a ruler and results in multiple connections and more complex thinking. K’NEX works well for this activity as do rulers and paddle pop sticks, albeit with more masking tape, Blutac or similar.

I’ve found that two or three iterations (number of designs) are often needed to deliver a structure that can support the Sphero and provide some edge guidance or rails. Be careful on smooth desks as Sphero can spin due to the lack of traction, some masking tape to rough up the surface is worthwhile.

To add to the challenge, students working in groups might only be allowed to ask the teacher (engineer) one design question or students could be given a $ budget and purchase materials from the teacher as would happen in real life. I also have students weigh their bridges and compare results. Leaning to balance weight versus strength and rigidity is an important learning point.


The Chariot

This is a fun and somewhat tricky challenge offering opportunities for multiple iterations and trials. The challenge is to build a chariot (or harness) that a programmed Sphero acting as horse can drag over a course. K’NEX is ideal due to the range of connection options. I’ve also used CDs as wheels and LEGO pieces as needed by students. Sphero can be programmed using SPRK or Tickle app to complete a course, or for a straight line race, I’d recommend the Sphero Draw and Drive app. The design of the chariot can be simple or complex and students often find the axle/wheel combination one of the more challenging aspects to master.

Collaboration, creativity, problem solving, reflection and resilience are evident in these tasks and strong connections to the maths syllabus and coding are embedded.

design make improve – learning through serious play!





Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning Online Course

Coursera is offering the Exploratorium’s great Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning online course. It starts June 27.

I did this two years ago and it was without doubt one of the best professional learning experiences of the year. It offers global collaboration, hands-on learning and solid theory and insights from leading practitioners.

Most project parts can be sourced locally and the skills and knowledge gained are very useful if making and tinkering is to be a focus in your school or classroom.

Check it out at  –

Also check out the Tinkering Studio for an insight into some of the projects –

dare mighty things!

K-6 Making and Tinkering (+ NSW syllabus links)

 because making is fun….

Tinkering and making, or Tinkertime as the kids term it, has been the learning activity of choice in my stage two class for the past year or so. After seeing a range of makerspaces and hands-on learning environments on my Churchill fellowship last year I was keen to introduce tinkering into my classroom.

Learning through play is the term used by Chris Rogers from TUFTS CEEO when talking about LEGO bricks and robotics as tools for classroom learning. Tinkering is also about learning though play and is inclusive of creative, challenging, reflective and shared learning experiences.

Photo 5


Tinkertime and making has proven a very successful way to have all students engaged in hands-on design and make activities.

There are demonstrable milestones and outcomes programmed against the NSW Science K-10 syllabus and the Working Technologically strand. Importantly, when combined with aspects of the Mathematics K-10 syllabus covering Working Mathematically and English K-10 via student reflection, tinkering offers comprehensive cross key learning area differentiated learning. The K-6 NSW outcomes that may be applicable are shown below.


science outcomeseng1


At the same time I regularly check-in with students to ensure that they are effectively reflecting on the design and make process. I have them verbally identify their successes but also challenges.

I always ask, ‘What could be improved?’ and ‘How sweaty is your brain?’, a question that encourages students to reflect on the mental effort and thinking that is taking place.

Frustration, failure and persistence are traits and experiences that students need a self-awareness and understanding of. Too often student mindsets don’t allow for failure and I’ve found that tinkering greatly develops resilience in students. Failure and mistakes are what tinkering is all about and giving up on a task is not an option.

Entry level tinkering

A few examples of successful activities and that also use a minimum of resources are outlined below.

The scribbling machine.

These simple yet effective machines are made with a cup, 3-5 felt tip markers and a small DC motor and battery with plasticine or similar to act as a balance. Students are set the challenge of designing a machine that scribbles across a page leaving a colourful and creative design or pattern. The trick is to get the motor out of balance so that the machine is vibrating across the paper. Adjusting the motor position and adding material to ensure that the shaft is out of balance are essential to success.





The marble run.

Marble runs have a been a wonderful surprise, this year. They are surprisingly simple, yet can offer degrees of complexity and opportunity that I had never considered. Using just paddle pop sticks and plasticine my class have had hours of challenging fun designing and testing courses with set criteria such as the run must take 9 seconds from start to finish, or, it must include 14 sticks or 3 acute angle and 4 obtuse angle drops. The criteria are endless!


What else? Well LEGO brick constructions, deconstructing broken mechanical items and toys, robotics in its many forms including littleBits, cubelets and NXT/EV3 robotics, paper and sewn circuits, coding and programming are all options during Tinkertime!


Photo 11

There are many resources now available on the web and I recommend Stager’s Invent to Learn text and website and the Exploratoriums Tinkering site for activity guides and their wonderful Coursera Tinkering course.

With the increasing focus on making STEM interesting, valid and valued within the K-6 curriculum, tinkering and making have rightfully bright futures in the contemporary teaching and learning environment.