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A STEAM project where students learn:

Curriculum Learning Activities
SCIENCE Real world experimental design and data collection
TECHNOLOGY Use technology for diagnosis and/or analysis of materials
ART Record, document and publish a multi-media history of the project
ENGINEERING How to design and build a wind powered vehicle from (very simple to advanced).
MATHEMATICS Evaluation, prototyping and improvement guided by authentic data & improved understanding

A STEAM activity where students investigate basic engineering concepts using sailing technology as a method of illustrating the application of those concepts. Inspired by 'Engineers Go Sailing' Stanford University

IF ALL ELSE FAILS: “I will admit that engineering is my weak area of STEM, but if I expect my students to be uncomfortable while learning, then so must I!” Darci J Harland

The Physics of Sailing:

Sailing provides excellent examples of physics, including: Newton's laws, vector subtraction, Archimedes' principle and others.

Some of the questions that are important for sailors are:

  • Can a boat sail upwind (against the wind - opposite to the direction that the wind is blowing?
  • Can a boat sail faster than the wind (when the boat is only powered by the wind blowing)?

We will use science (the physics of sailing), to answer and STEAM to better understand these and some other questions.

But first:

Video 1. The Physics of Sailing

Sails - Less About Rock & Roll, More About Push & Pull:


Generally speaking, sailing vessels employ two main types of rig: the square rig and the fore-and-aft rig.

  1. The square rig, relies on rectangular sails, suspended from the masts and set “square” (i.e., at a right angle to) the keel of the ship. Few vessels of this type are seen today.
  2. The 'fore-and-aft' rig (with triangular shaped sails) is far more common: nearly every dinghy and yacht uses this type of rig, in which the sails are mounted parallel to the keel and are secured to the fore of the ship and to the aft rather than side to side.


Sails propel the boat in one of two ways:

  1. When the boat is going in the direction of the wind (i.e. downwind), the sails may be set merely to trap the air as it flows by. The 'push' of the wind filling the sails provides the main driving force.
  2. The other way sails propel the boat occurs when the boat is travelling across or into the wind“”. The sails acting as 'airfoils' with air pressure differences across the sail area resulting in lift, which provides the main driving force.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sail#Sail_aerodynamics

Video 2. How Sails, Wings & Wind Turbine Blades Push & Pull

Very Simple DIY Wind Power Toy Experiments:

WARNING: Most of the experiments below require some minor scissor cutting and/or making of holes

If case this is a practical or safety challenge for students then an adult can, in most cases, very quickly and easily prepare the materials in advance.

On the other hand, parents may wish to volunteer to help in the classroom.

Video 3. Example - Example of a wind powered toy that students can build:

Getting Started (Your First Experiment):

Your teacher will give you a link to start and tell you how much time you have to complete this challenge.

Using the materials on the table, design a wind turbine with blades that turn.

Every 15 minutes, take a photograph or make a short video of your progress and make notes in your journal about what you did in the last 15 minutes.

To help you, your teacher may ask questions, like:

  • “What are you going to change in order to get the blades to turn?”
  • Seek help from your team or classmates if you get frustrated or discouraged.
  • If your turbine does not work right away try to figure out a solution - real problems are never easy to solve: Real science and engineering takes place only with hard work. Now is always the best time to make mistakes and learn from them!

Your teacher should NOT tell you what to do to make your turbine work.

If the questions do not help, you will need to figure out how to get help some other way.

At the end of this session you should be prepared to answer some questions such as:

  1. Why you chose that design rather than another?
  2. How do you think the design could be improved
  3. Would you choose the same one to build next time?
  4. What is the difference between a turbine, a sail and a fan?
  5. Can you explain what happens when the wind hits the turbine blades - why do the blades turn?
  • If you finish early, try to improve the design so that the sail or turbine can lift weight.

Wind Power Experiments for Beginners

A sample of wind power devices that can be built using very simple materials and requiring minimal skill.

There are plans and a short (one minute) video (see link at the bottom of each plan page) for each of the toys:

Arvind Gupta - Toys From Trash

    1. Question 1. Is the paper spinner a fan or a turbine?
    2. Question 2. How many sails does this spinner have - 1, 2, 3 or none?
  1. Build a cereal packet (or similar stiff cardboard) square paper spinner
  2. Simple balloon powered wind turbine balloon spinner
  3. Wind powered paper plate propeller
  4. Simple wind surfer
  5. Paper plate powered toy car on youtube …OR… here
  6. Paper cup car. Down and up wind: on youtube…OR… here
  7. Wind spinners video …OR… here
  8. Wind powered spinner with gears
  9. Making corrugated Cardboard Gears video …OR… here
  10. There a lots of simple spinning toys to build quickly and easily.

Fan Cart

Can a fan blow your sailboat out of the doldrums?

Fan Sailing Cart If a sailboat is stranded because there is no wind, is it possible to set up a fan on deck and blow wind into the sail to make the boat move?

This is a classic physics problem that you can explore by using simple materials to build a low-friction cart with a removable motor and sail. What’s Going On?

Here is a summary of the results to be expected for the investigations above:

  • Cart doesn't move.
  • Cart goes forward.
  • Cart goes forward.
  • Cart goes backward.
  • Initially the cart doesn’t move, but when the file folder or paper is in place, the cart moves backward.

The behavior of the cart is a classic example of Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction and can also be used to demonstrate other aspects of force and motion. Source Exploratorium Science Snacks Fan Cart

S.T.E.A.M Powered Sailing Challenge! (start of major project):

A sail-boat moves by harnessing the wind pushing and pulling on the sail(s).

For our sailing challenge, students will demonstrate that movement using sail-powered toy cars.

  • All sails and hardware must wherever possible be hand built and use re-cycled materials.
  • Student work-sheets must identify the work done by themselves versus work done by others.
  • Students design and build a vehicle powered only by one or more sails (wind driven only).
  • The total sail area must not be greater that a single A4 sheet.
  • The sail driven vehicle can be started from any position along a designated 'start' line
  • Each vehicle must start from a still, motionless state with front of car on the 'start' line and no push-starts allowed.
  • The timer is started when the 'start' signal is given and stopped when the first part of the vehicle has crossed over any part of the finish line.
  • A portable fan will be placed some distance behind a designated start line to provide a standardised source of wind (to provides the same wind strength and direction for each run).
  • See information below and in teacher rubric for more detailed information.

Example only: Student-built Wind-Driven Cars

Glossary: Comparing Fans, Turbines, Propellers and Sails:

  • Wind turbine – a rotating device that converts wind energy into mechanical energy.
  • Windmill – a machine which converts the energy of wind into rotational energy by means of vanes called sails or blades.
  • Sail – any type of surface intended to move a vessel, vehicle or rotor by being placed in a wind – in essence a propulsion wing
  • When a rotor (the bit that rotates) is being driven by the air it is a turbine or fan.
  • When the rotor is driving the air, it is a fan or propeller.

Source: Wikipedia - Wind energy

Our Prototype: Sailing Tests using a wind powered toy car kit:

A Video record of our experiments to test sailing methods using a wind powered a toy car:

Video 4. Here is a video on how to build the toy car used in the above experiments:

The toy used in our experiments (above) was available in Australia in FEb 2016 for around $15 (including postage) from EBay Australia.

WARNING: The plastic parts may require some (minimal) cutting/trimming. To make sure you don't hurt yourself or break any pieces and waste your money, it's best to get an adult to help work with you and help you understand the plans and the way the bits fit together. There is another video on how to build the car here.

MODIFICATIONS: On the prototype, we removed the wind vane and replaced it with an elastic band so that the turbine/sails responded only to wind blown from the direction of the fan.

Video 5. How starting with simple toys can lead to surprising & amazing science:

Full links to original plans and instructions on building the prototype model shown in this video are available on the Advanced Challenge wiki page

Can you find out whether they ended up breaking the world record?

Scientific Method

When Building & Testing, remember To Always Use Scientific method:

  • Write down what you have done, what you have changed and why you changed it
  • Take photographs and videos
  • Record all of your results
  • Write down any questions and ideas
  • Make sure your work is clear enough and has enough information for someone else to repeat your work.

How To Teach Science:

Research around the world indicates that at the end of their schooling, large numbers of students still hold many ideas, or conceptions, which are not in accord with the way that scientists understand our world. Here are some guidelines for teaching science at school.

The Scientific Method:

Scientific Method - A Flow Chart

The scientific method is one particular way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations and doing experiments. Some people argue that there is no such thing as 'The Scientific Method' - make up your own mind:

The steps of the scientific method are to:

  • Ask a Question
  • Do Background Research
  • Construct a Hypothesis
  • Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
  • Record your Observations in a Table of Results
  • Analyse the Data and Draw a Conclusion
  • Communicate Your Results

No matter what your method is, it is important for your experiment to be a fair test:

A fair test means that you should set up your experiment so that everything is fair.

  • You should only change one thing at a time, and note down the results.
  • If you change more than one thing at a time, you can not tell which thing (variable) it was that affected the results.

APPENDIX - Wind Power Extras

Here are lots of links to give you ideas and help you get started along your journey:

FIRSTLY, here's the answer to the sailing puzzle (above) and some more information about how sails work - Source: University of NSW

The sailing race puzzle (above):

Wind Power - What are Sails & Turbines?:

Wind power is the conversion of wind energy into a some other useful form of energy such as using turbines to make electricity, windmills for mechanical power, wind pumps for water pumping or drainage.

Wind energy is the Kinetic energy associated with the movement of atmospheric air. It has been used for hundreds of years for sailing, grinding grain & for irrigation. With the right technology,the wind's kinetic energy can be captured and converted to other useful forms of energy such as electricity or mechanical power (See the most efficient design for a wind turbine & the best wind turbine blade design for catching a direct steady horizontal wind.)

The blades on a modern wind turbines use the same principles as the sails on a boat: A modern wind turbine is driven by one or more sails.

Modern ships using unconventional sails:

Example Sail Driven Projects:

Some ideas to get you started - not to copy (you can do much better):

Classroom Sailing Test Lab:

Saling test lab

Students can build a scientific quality 'Sailing Test Lab' to measure, compare and improve their designs:

Some links to help assess good, better, best & most improved design:

  1. History: on youtube here

  • To drive wheels, use gears from op-shop toys, old clocks or DIY - see links below:
  • Two plastic milk bottle tops (and similar), plus a tooth pick make a great wheel set.
  • Direct into wind sailing craft:

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brainbox/young-engineers/sailing/home.txt · Last modified: 09/04/2018/ 22:32 (external edit)