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Wind spinner

Use common materials to design and construct a device that turns in the wind. Relate to an anemometer (which measures wind speed) or wind turbines/windmills.
Science content (2016 curriculum): 
Physics: Motion and Forces, Newton’s Laws, Gravity (K, 2, 6)
Physics: Energy forms, Conservation of Energy (1, 3, 4, 5)
Earth/Space: Weather, Seasons, Climate Change (K, 1, 4, 7)
Earth/Space: Sustainable practices, Interconnectedness (2, 5, 7)
Science topic (2005 curriculum connection): 
Earth and Space Science: Daily and Seasonal Changes (grade 1)
Earth and Space Science: Air, Water and Soil (grade 2)
Earth and Space Science: Weather (grade 4)
Earth and Space Science: Renewable and Non-Renewable Resources (grade 5)
Physical Science: Force and Motion (grade 1)
Physical Science: Materials and Structures (grade 3)
Physical Science: Forces and Simple Machines (grade 5)
Lessons activity is in: 
  • scissors
  • masking tape
  • cardboard e.g. cereal boxes
  • recycled paper
  • paper plates
  • skewers
  • popsicle sticks
  • coffee stir sticks
  • chop sticks
  • straws
  • push pins
  • other blunt pins (mine came out of a broken pin screen)
  • little tubes or pen caps
  • optional: modelling clay, or if asked for

Show students the materials.
Give them their challenge:
Make a device that turns in the wind. For older students add that it could be used for measuring how fast the wind is going.
They can test their device by blowing on it, or ideally, by taking it into/making it in the wind outside.

Before starting, ask older students to think of the key "machine elements" (mechanisms, design components):
A pivot: parts that can spin around each other.
"Blades" that can catch the wind - larger surface areas that the wind can hit and push against.
It might be useful for them to refer back to these if they get stuck in their designing.

Show younger or less mechanically minded students different ideas for making a pivot (there are many other ways):
1. a skewer or chopstick in an inverted tube/pen cap
2. a pin taped to a straw/skewer/coffee stir stick, resting inside a straw
3. a pin through a straw (later on this might need a straw piece spacer threaded on the pin to hold any blades out from the straw handle)

For Kindergarten students, provide them with tube-and-skewer pivot, cardboard, scissors and tape. Demonstrate how the tube spins on the skewer. Draw and name shapes that they could cut out of cardboard ("rectangle", "triangle", "blade shape" good to include), to tape to the tube. They can add more shapes if they want. Depending on how they tape the blades onto the tube, and so how floppy the blades are, they may need to be shown how to strap a strip of curved cardboard across two blades to hold them steady.

Allow students time to freely experiment, discuss ideas together (and steal good ideas from each other, as all good designers and architects do).
The Play-Debrief-Replay method for teaching works very well for this activity - see notes in the resource.

If students are in need of help, either ask them to visit other wind machines that are spinning in the classroom, or help them focus on some ideas (e.g. see pivot ideas above).

Once they are done experimenting, review the different ways of making the key machine elements (pivot; blades to catch the wind)

During discussion, refer to uses of wind machines:
Anemometers measure wind speed - cups that spin around a shaft. Using magnets, the number of turns is translated into wind speed. (Show real anemometer if possible.)
Other applications of machines that turn in the wind:
(Wind vanes have a blade that turns in the wind, but its position stablilizes to show the direction that the wind is coming from.)
Windmills are wind machines used to pump water for farming or for groundwater extraction. They were also commonly used for grinding grain. They are complex machines of levers, wheels and gears.
A wind turbine is a windmill used to generate electricity: the energy in wind turns a blade which runs a generator to make electricity. Wind turbines are in greater use with increasing sustainable energy practices.


I started out also providing little paper cups in the materials, but found that students did not use them as the part that catches the wind, but often as a rickety pivot. Removing the cups redirected students towards better pivot ideas, and if they wanted a cup-like blade, they could curve the cardboard or paper.
I started out providing clay, but it is nasty for clothes and students often stuffed the little tube with it, so vastly increasing friction. I removed it from the materials, provided it if asked for, or discussed ways that tape can achieve the task.

Grades tested: 
Gr K
Gr 1
Gr 2
Gr 3
Gr 4
Gr 5
Gr 6
Gr 7
Alane Lublow
Becky Evermon
Daphne Gurney
Heather Wallace
Nina Hooker
Scott Malin
Sharon Ghuman
Taz Ismail
Teaching site: 
ingridscience afterschool
Tyee Elementary
Activity originally developed and delivered: 

ingridscience afterschool