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Building Windmills in the STEM Lab

When planning for new STEM projects I always had an idea for building a windmill. There are also many parts to this project- let’s dive right in!

Building windmills is something I wanted to try and so, we did!

So, just imagine for a second, challenging your students to create something that turns…   Let me clarify…turning by using the wind. In the STEM Lab, we make our own wind with a fan! I have two different sizes of fans that we use in the lab when we need to create air movement.

STEM Project featuring Building a Windmill- perfect for the windy month of March or anytime. Students use materials to build a turning windmill!

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What was I thinking?

When I am inventing a new challenge, the first thing I do is make a list of materials. Often, I build a model myself to see what I might need. Does this always work?

Well, no. I often add materials that I think will work and my test class helps me discover I am wrong! 🙂 Let’s explore my thinking about building windmills!

I really thought a bobbin would work for building windmills…

STEM Project featuring Building a Windmill- perfect for the windy month of March or anytime. Students use materials to build a turning windmill!

Since we have completed projects similar to this in the past I knew what the biggest problem was going to be! The turning part.

It works very much like the axle of a wheel and I knew how hard that tends to be. So, I tried really hard to think of all kinds of things the students could use for that center turning mechanism that would also have the blades of the windmill attached to it. In the photos can you see what the blades are attached to?

It’s a sewing machine bobbin! I really thought these would work great! The center is rather small but that can be a good thing. A straw threaded through the hole in the center and then attached to the windmill seemed like a perfect solution. Except, also look at the photo above. Too much tape! It kept the blades from turning around. 

STEM featuring Building a Windmill- perfect for the windy month of March or anytime. Students use materials to build a turning windmill!

Another item we tried for building windmills was a wooden disc. We drill a hole through the center and it was large enough for a straw.

The discs were also large enough that the blades of the windmill could be easily attached. That was one of the problems the bobbins created! They were not big enough to allow the blades to fit!

TIP: One thing that helped students visualize what the turning part of a windmill would be is to think about a ceiling fan. Students talked about ceiling fans as they built these windmills. I heard them say things like, “Our fan in the house only has five flat parts (blades), so we don’t need fifteen of these!” (Take a look at the photo above with all those thin, tiny blades!)

The blades had to have a fold or scoop or bent part to work! (I thought)

STEM challenge featuring Building a Windmill- perfect for the windy month of March or anytime. Students use materials to build a turning windmill!
STEM featuring Building a Windmill- perfect for the windy month of March or anytime. Students use materials to build a turning windmill!

The blades were so fun! Students came up with so many ways to make these. On the left above you see a team that made cone shapes in many colors. It looked fabulous, but it turned out to be heavy. Surprisingly it worked really well! Also, on the left, a team used lightweight copy paper folded to make a scoop that could catch air. We learned very quickly that a flat piece of paper for a blade did not work at all. It had to have a fold, scoop, or shape to it to catch the air and turn. Take a look at the one on the right. It was very cute, but the flat paper blades did not work! (I was right about that!)

Again, it was the ceiling fan discussions that led students to decide that flat blades are okay, but they must be angled.

STEM Activity featuring Building a Windmill- perfect for the windy month of March or anytime. Students use materials to build a turning windmill!

The bright pink one worked really well. The wooden disc in the center had a straw through it that was threaded through a hole in the windmill tube. It went all the way through the tube and was secured on the back, but it was still able to turn. The blades had a little fold in them that caught air.

While part of this team worked on the blade, another team member drew all those stripes with markers. 🙂

STEM Challenge featuring Building a Windmill- perfect for the windy month of March or anytime. Students use materials to build a turning windmill!
STEM Project featuring Building a Windmill- perfect for the windy month of March or anytime. Students use materials to build a turning windmill!

The orange one has nice large blades with a slight bend. However, the base would not support the weight of those blades. The green one has a great axle going through the center of the structure but, sadly, those skinny little blades would not turn at all.

Here is a little video we put together with all the projects. (You can see some turning blades!)

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STEM featuring Building a Windmill- perfect for the windy month of March or anytime. Students use materials to build a turning windmill!

Materials You Need for Windmills!

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