This Science You Can See article is all about wheels. The history of the wheel dates back centuries and the uses for wheels of all kinds, holds fascination for adults as well as children.
The information in this article is appropriate for both home and classroom learning and is particularly appropriate to preschoolers.
Nearly all children love toys that spin and turn and twirl. Toy cars are sold by the 'truckload' (ha ha!), and dancing and twirling to music are joyful activities for children and adults of all ages. Ferris wheels are magnificent, fun inventions.
The planets orbit around the sun in our galaxy, and the earth rotates on its axis. We know about spectacular and dangerous whirling cyclones and tornadoes, but really nature provides us with very few examples of spinning and twisting.
There are unique 'helicopter seeds' from Maple Ash trees, which swirl to the ground in the wind. And hummingbirds have wings, which circle in 'figure 8' patterns, so that they can hover and fly sideways and backwards, but these examples are quite rare. The DNA helix is one spectacular example of an important twist in nature.
You may like to help your child or your class to brainstorm other circular movements in the natural world.
From centuries ago, people have developed uses for wheels and circular objects. Shifting heavy objects by rolling them on tree trunks was probably a very early innovation, which saved physical effort.
Pottery wheels seem to have been the first application of wheels and this was about 5500 years ago in Sumeria–the area that is now Iraq. Soon after this people thought to put wheels on carts and advances in transportation would begin. About 2000 years ago the first mills started to be used to grind grain and pump water. And 1000 years ago spinning wheels were invented to help turn fibres into yarn. Using wheels made all of these tasks much easier.
Now, with everything from aeroplane propellers, to merry-go-rounds, DVDs, fishing reels and door knobs–things that turn and spin–are part of our modern lives.
All sorts of transport systems rely on round wheels, fans, gears, cogs, dials and knobs. Some examples are:
We can make trucks and cars from small cardboard boxes with four or more circular cardboard wheels, attached with axels made of wooden skewers, tooth picks or clips.
Billy carts are larger, stronger versions of this design, using old pram wheels, or ball bearing wheels on sturdy axels (like on a skateboard).
It is not only wheels that are important for transportation-spinning blades provide the lift for helicopters, and revolving turbine engines power modern jet planes.
With small cardboard boxes and icy-pole sticks for the propeller blades, you can assemble your own planes and helicopters.
Transport developments are now making less use of wheels. Thus 'Maglev trains' run on electromagnetic cushions, rockets blast off from launch pads and space capsules return to land in the ocean using parachutes.
The first applications of wheels helped provide food, water, pottery and yarn. Looking around your house or school you will find many uses for wheels. Tools and machines use them often, for example, drills, chainsaws, trolleys, taps and screws.
Roll-up window blinds rely on wheels; vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers are moved around on wheels.
Electric fans keep us cool in summer and fans blow warm air from heaters in the winter.
Again, simple machines are relying less and less on wheels and cogs. So clocks and watches no longer need to be wound, telephones don't have a 'dial' of numbers, but your computer mouse will probably be driven by a little wheel.
Cut out shapes from cardboard or plastic lids, and use a toothpick, pen or chopstick as the shaft. You can try different weights of cardboard and paper, or fold the fan/propeller blades along the central line, to create better friction for their rotation. Fans and propellers can have two or four blades.
Take a circle of coloured paper and cut a 1 cm spiral into the centre. Suspend your spiral from cotton tied through a hole in the centre of the spiral and hang it from a coat hanger. Watch it spin and twirl in the wind currents created by your home heater, or hang the spirals outside in the wind.
You can make your own 'Maple helicopter seeds' from paper cut out to copy maple seed shapes (see the link from NASA below). Attach a small paper clip to one end and drop the 'seed' from about head height. You will need to adjust the paper clip to successfully get your 'seed' to rotate automatically.
See how many kitchen tools rely on wheels and circular movement. Some examples are:
Then there are the mixers, blenders, and the microwave oven tray, which rotates to ensure even cooking.
Some foods even spiral and roll–think sushi,spiral pasta, sausage rolls and Swiss roll cake–yum!
Hundreds of toys rely on wheels, and winding, rotating and whirling like:
Some can be very simple, like wheels for trucks, or nuts and bolts in building kits. Some toys are more exotic like gyroscopes, which work a bit like the wheels on your bicycle as you ride along. (These find serious applications in motor bikes, satellites, ships' compasses and robots).
See if you can make a list of things, which spin and turn, starting with A to Z. You might find this hard at first, but there are lots of things mentioned in this article.
Can you find a musical instrument which twirls or spins? The only common one is a 'cog rattle' or 'cogged ratchet', which makes a loud clattering noise. This can be used to comic effect, or sometimes it turns up at sporting events as a simple noise maker.
Make a list of words, which describe circular movements - coil, curl, helix, spool, twirl, twist. Hint: Many use 'wh' sounds ...and don't forget exercise activities like discus throwing, ice-skating, ballet-dancing and waltzing.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) was not only an artist but a brilliant inventor, who used wheels and circular motion to make amazing machines, such as weapons, a helicopter, and robots (See: http://www.mos.org/sln/Leonardo/eight/eight.html )
Create, draw and make your own novel whirling machine using the principles of circular motion, wheels and ratchets. You may be the next Leonardo.
Important note: All activities are designed to be performed under the supervision of a responsible adult, who is aware of any conditions that might preclude the safe participation of the child.
Boston, Museum of Science Inventors Tool Box. The Elements of Machines http://www.mos.org/sln/Leonardo/InventorsToolbox.html
Helicopter Seeds: http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/k-12/TRC/Aeronautics/Maple_Seed.html
Humming bird circular wing movement: http://www.hummingbirds.net/images/figure8.mov
Karen Carr, Associate Professor of History, Portland State University, Wheel and Axel: http://www.historyforkids.org/scienceforkids/physics/machines/wheel.htm
Pitara Kids Network, The Wheel: http://www.pitara.com/magazine/features/online.asp?story=10&page=3
Robot hummingbird: http://www.physorg.com/news181208607.html
Uses of gyroscopes: http://www.gyroscopes.org/uses.asp
Article written by Kathy Andrewartha (B.App.Sci., M.Sc., B.A., Grad Dip. Info. Sci.). Kathy studied Biochemistry at Swinburne and La Trobe Universities and has worked on research topics involving both plants and animals. She enjoys teaching science at all levels. She particularly likes presenting science to young children, and is passionate about stimulating active learning and analytical thinking about scientific topics.