www.TeachEngineering.org Integrated Teaching and Learning Program. College of Engineering, University of Boulder Xochitl Zamora-Thompson; Sabre Duren; Natalie Mach; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise W. Carlson
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Instructor Guide/Manual , Lesson/Lesson Plan
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



In this lesson, students will learn that waterwheels are machines that convert the energy of falling water into power that can grind wheat into flour, saw timber, and make work easier. After investigating what this technology can do, students create a waterwheel using a plastic soda bottle, index cards, and a wooden dowel as they investigate the transformations of energy involved in turning the blades of a hydro-turbine. Students will also experiment with how weight affects the rotational rate of the waterwheel. In addition to a structured class activity, students can also be given the opportunity to use what they have learned to make and test waterwheels using different materials and designs.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 5
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

3-5-ETS1-1 Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Using what they have learned in the previous activities, the engineering design project gives the students the opportunity to design a waterwheel that is more efficient than the waterwheel they previously designed using different materials and investigating variables. The teacher could ask students to define the criteria and constraints before they begin their notebook entries.

4-PS3-4 Apply scientific ideas to design, test, and refine a device that converts energy from one form to another.

Clarification Statement: Examples of devices could include electric circuits that convert electrical energy into motion energy of a vehicle, light, or sound; and, a passive solar heater that converts light into heat. Examples of constraints could include the materials, cost, or time to design the device.

Assessment Boundary: Devices should be limited to those that convert motion energy to electric energy or use stored energy to cause motion or produce light or sound.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
To begin the lesson, it is suggested NOT to start with the provided background reading and vocabulary. Instead, show students a short clip of a waterwheel in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-4Ll_v32RY OR https://wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-is-a-waterwheel. Have them jot down and discuss what they see happening and questions they might have. Through questioning and discussion, students can see that the movement of the wheel turns an axle that transfers its energy to a drive belt or system of gears that operate a mechanism to do work. In the first design challenge, the student groups will be testing a prototype using the same materials with only variations in how the index cards are folded and attached. This will give each team an opportunity to create their own engineering design for the paddles. To best meet this performance expectation, it is suggested that students are given the opportunity to also test and refine their own waterwheel as mentioned in the Activity Extensions.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students will test and collect data to help them explain how different paddle or blade designs (index cards) moved the weight of the water and effected the rotation. The better the blade design, the faster the waterwheel turns and moves the weight upwards. Students could discuss how they think the different paddle or blade designs might affect water movement, giving evidence for their ideas.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
As suggested in the Activity Extension, students can conduct research on various waterwheels or hydroelectric plants (or possibly visit one if available in their area) prior to designing their own waterwheel. As students create their waterwheels, each group will vary how the index cards are folded and attached, which provides an engineering design opportunity for each team to test how well it collects and moves the water. Each group can then share what worked and didn’t work from their investigations, explaining in their notebooks what they observed and what they might do to revise and improve their designs.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students will observe that the energy from the falling water moves the water wheel. It is suggested that teachers discuss the different steps in energy transfer/conversion using waterwheels. (How does the energy from the falling water generate electricity? Mill wheat?) As students collect data, they can use their evidence to discuss how the rate of rotation affects the amount of energy being produced. Students could even be given an attachment to connect their dowel to a motor/generator, which could be connected to a multimeter or voltmeter (allowing them to see the voltage being produced).

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
As students investigate the transformations of energy involved in turning the blades into work, they realize that hydropower captures the energy from the movement of water.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This lesson provides students with opportunities to engage in three dimensional learning as they investigate how a waterwheel uses energy to do work. Students use the science practices by making observations, carrying out investigations and analyzing data to make sense of different ways a waterwheel transforms energy. The crosscutting concept of energy transfer is incorporated into student learning and subsequent design of their own waterwheels. The teacher will develop student understanding of the connection between waterwheel function and modern day turbines/ hydroelectric plants. Students will become more aware of how engineers use similar investigations to solve problems of energy supply to people around the world.

  • Instructional Supports: TeachEngineering provides various resources to support the instruction of this lesson. Within the lesson, teachers have access to driving questions, a student handout, step by step guidance for the engineering investigation, as well as content information about the waterwheel phenomenon of falling water being converted into energy to do work. Activity extensions as well as activity scaling suggestions are also included. Although finding averages may not be found in the 4th grade curriculum, hints are given in the resource to aid students as they collect data with each trial. Teachers are encouraged to use the referenced links for further for further information. (Energyquest links are not functioning.) To give students additional information about forms of energy and how humans use energy to power our lives, it is suggested to look at 12 Biggest Breakthroughs in Energy Technology https://www.getepic.com/app/read/30887.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Through peer sharing, embedded questions for class discussion, engineering tasks, and data collection, this lesson provides ways for teachers to monitor students progress. However, there is no scoring guidance available. A student created rubric may be helpful to guide student understanding.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource does not include a technologically interactive component.