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The Mechanics of Cars: Simple Machines in Automobiles

simple machines in automobiles

Simple machines are single, mechanical devices that help improve the daily life of humans by allowing them to work faster, easier, and more efficiently. Simple machines are considered to be the basic mechanisms that all complex machines are composed of. The 6 basic types of simple machines are: pulley, screw, inclined plane, wheel and axle, edge, and lever. When people perform work, such as applying force to move heavy objects, simple machines makes these common tasks easier. When more than one simple machine work together, they create a compound machine. An example of this would be a pulley system, consisting of two or more pulleys. When a machine is made up of many simple and compound machines, they create a complex machine. A perfect example of a complex machine is an automobile. Automobiles contain many stand alone simple machines - the steering wheel consists of the wheel and axle, while the shifting in automatic cars is controlled by levers.


  • Simple Machines: The Pulley - A very basic overview of the pulley, complete with hand drawn cartoons to show examples.
  • Pulleys: A Physical Science Activity - An interactive classroom lesson plan that requires two broomsticks and one meter of rope do demonstrate how a pulley works.
  • What is a Pulley - What this video from MocomiKids, that gives a wonderful overview of how a pulley makes common tasks easier.
  • Simple Machines and the Pulley - A student from Boston University put together this wonderful guide of all simple machines. The page features a what, why, and fun facts about the pulley.
  • Powerful Pulleys Activity Template - This lesson plan, geared towards 3rd and 4th graders, takes about 40 minutes to complete. (Resources are required to demonstrate this lesson.)

Wheels and Axles

  • Dirtmeister's Science Reporters: The Wheel and Axle - Scholastic Inc. provides a wonderful overview of what a wheel and axle is, and how we use them in daily life.
  • Examples of Wheels and Axles - MiKids provides tons of pictures of wheels and axles in every day objects, as well as a quick quiz to see if kids fully understand what this simple machine is.
  • Simple Machines Guide (PDF) - This guide by Terri Wakild provides an activity for making and testing a wheel and axle machine. Geared toward 5th graders, it also has a fantastic vocabulary guide.
  • Putting the "Simple" in Simple Machines (PDF) - Geared towards 2nd and 3rd grades, this guide offers teaching activities to show students how pulleys and wheels and axles work together.
  • Simply Amazing - The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute put together this curriculum for 6th-graders to define and demonstrate simple machines, including the wheel and axle.


  • Levers in Games: Pinball Wizard - create your own lever simple machine with this fun and interactive pinball lesson plan! Parents and children alike will love making this simple machine.
  • Classroom Activities: Lever Lift - Nova Teachers provide this classroom activity to educate kids about levers. Building a brick-and-skewer lever, materials are required.
  • Pop Fly Challenge (PDF) - A more advanced lesson plan, this is designed to show how levers are everywhere
  • First Class Levers - MnSTEP Teaching Activities provides this lesson plan that is geared towards 4th and 5th graders. Learn about levers with this course overview for hands-on learning activities.
  • Elementary Exploration: Lever (PDF) - This simple experiment is meant to show elementary school-aged kids just how levers work. Materials needed include two pencils, three pennies, tape, and a ruler.

Inclined Plane

  • The Ramp or Inclined Plane - Did you know a ramp is an inclined plane? Work with a class partner to list as many inclined planes as you can.
  • The Ramp - Download this interactive software and follow the instructions to test the effectiveness of the inclined plane with household objects.
  • Inclined Plane (PDF) - Using rice, a rubber band, ruler, masking tape, three books, yardstick, sock and string, this teacher's guide teaches students how an inclined plane moves materials.
  • Acceleration Lab Teacher's Guide - A more advanced lesson plan to teach students about inclined planes and the relationship between plane angle and acceleration.
  • Simple Matchings Worksheet (PDF) - This lesson plan covers all simple machines, and forces students to recognize which simple machines are in every day life by providing images.


  • Machines in Motion (PDF) - Use this hands on guide to describe the purpose of screws. The lesson plan, focused on Leonardo Da Vinci's discoveries, suggests several ways for students to experiment with screws.
  • Second Grade Work & Simple Machines Unit - This five-day lesson plan for second graders, offers activities for teaching students about simple machines, including a scavenger hunt.
  • 4th Grade Simple Machines Stations (PDF) - Teach 4th grade students about screws at a screw station, complete with materials that enable experimentation and testing.
  • The Screw - Providing answers to what it is, why do we use it, and fun facts, this is a terrific overview of the screw for all ages!
  • What is a Screw? - Watch this quick video on an overview of the screw and how it affects other machines.

Compound Machines

  • Simple Machines and Compound Machines - Follow this webquest to explore how more than one simple machine will create a compound machine. Provides links to addition resources.
  • School Toolbox: Simple Machines Vs. Compound Machines - Learn the difference between both machines and how they are both used in everyday life.
  • About Compound Machines - This lesson plan reinforces the concepts of how simple machines make up compound machines by breaking down everyday objects and pointing out all of the simple machines within.
  • What is a Compound Machine? - provides an excellent overview of compound machines, complete with videos, quizzes and additional learning materials.
  • Compound Machines - Geared at 8th grade students, this website teaches students to understand the advantage of compound machines, and how simple machines provide the working foundation.


  • The Wedge and Simple Machines - Boston University provides information on what a wedge is, why we use it, and other fun facts!
  • The Incline or Wedge - Giving a more technical background of the wedge (including the mathematical information on required force) this overview is recommended for older students.
  • Simple Machines: The Wedge - EdHelper provides reading information (suggested for grades 3-5) all about the wedge. (Note: Must sign up for full lesson plan, but is a great website for all educators.)
  • Kitchen Gadgets Galore - This lesson plan presents common kitchen gadgets as simple machines, including the wedge. Great for exemplifying how simple machines are in everyday objects.
  • The Inclined Plane - (Another common name for the wedge) This quick definition of what a wedge is and how it affects everyday life will be sure to educate students of all ages.

Other Resources

  • Simple Machines In Cars And Tractors - Load this video presentation to learn about how many simple machines are in these common automobiles.
  • Work and Simple Machines -- Activities for Teachers - Broken down into an introduction, basic concepts, applications and additional activities, this is a great teaching guide with tons of resources.
  • Be Inventive - This hands on activity gives students the chance to design and build simple machines that solve problems posed in the instructions.
  • Moving Along with Simple Machines - Targeted grade level is 2-3, this is an exciting four week project covering all six simple machines in depth.
  • Simple Machines Used in History - This interactive lesson plan is geared toward grades 3-6. Approximately taking one hour, students use images from the Library of Congress to observe and identify simple machines, as well as have group discussions with their classmates.
  • The Facts About Simple Machines - Giving a brief history of how the want and need for simple machines came about, this easy to read overciew gives practival examples of all six simple machines!
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