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Forces and Simple Machines #3: Mr. Ferris and His Wheel

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Lesson Overview:

In this unit, the students have been learning about forces and simple machines.  They “tuned in” using the work of Chris Van Dusen and a naughty bear after a bag of marshmallows.  Next, they took notes from a digital information source, then built and flew their own paper airplanes.  Today, they’ll use another text to take an historical view of forces and simple machines.  Traveling back through time to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, students will discover the real story behind the world’s first Ferris Wheel!

Lesson Plan:

Suggested Grades:



Using their notes, students will be able to retell the story of the invention of the world’s first Ferris Wheel.  (AASL 2.3.1, “Connect understanding to the real world.”)

Suggested Time:

35-40 minutes

Success Criteria:

Using his or her notes for prompts, each student will be able to retell the story of the invention of the first Ferris Wheel.

Lesson Outline:

1. Introduction:

Remind the children how much fun simple machines and basic forces can be.  Last week they folded and flew their own paper airplanes.  Today, they will get to find out about one of the most popular amusement park rides, the Ferris Wheel.  The name of the ride even gives away one of the simple machines used in its design!

Ask the students how many of them have ever been to an amusement park.  Ask how many have ridden on a Ferris Wheel.  For those who have ridden on a Ferris Wheel, ask them to share or describe their experiences.

Explain that before finding out about the Ferris wheel, though, we need a bit of background.  Together, we actually need to travel back in time!  Ask the children to look at two images. (Point to the Eiffel Tower and Home Insurance Building pictures that should be hung in the room before the lesson.  See attached files for the images.)

  • Ask the students: Would you believe me if I told you that the Eiffel tower is the tallest building in the world?  Have you seen a building taller the Eiffel tower?  Where?  Are you sure?
  • Ask the students: Would you believe me if I told you that the ten-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago is the tallest skyscraper in the world?  Have you seen a taller skyscraper?  Where?

Tell the children that if they want to learn about the Ferris Wheel, they have to imagine a time in which the Eiffel Tower in Paris was the tallest building and the Home Insurance Building in Chicago was the tallest skyscraper!  If they can imagine that, then they are ready to learn about the Ferris Wheel.

2. Main:

Teach Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis and Gilbert Ford.  The students will have questions.  Scribe those on a flipchart or whiteboard for further inquiry.  Always keep track of the kids’ questions so that they can follow up and find out more.

Check for understanding by asking questions such as:

  • Why did the judges say “No” to all of the tower designs for the 1893 World’s Fair?  (Answer: They were too much like the Eiffel Tower, and the design judges were looking for something different.)
  • How was Mr. Ferris’ idea different?  (Answer: Ferris’ great structure would move!)
  • Why didn’t bankers and the World’s Fair officials support Mr. Ferris?  (Answer: They thought that the plan would never succeed!)
  • Why didn’t Mr. Ferris give up, especially after he got so little support for his plan?  (Answer: He was confident in his design and calculations and the engineering work behind them.)
  • What two simple machines are the fundamental design for a Ferris Wheel?  (Answer: Wheel and axle.)
  • What structure from Mr. Ferris’ childhood inspired him to build a giant wheel?  (Answer: Waterwheel.)
  • What material can make structures both strong and light?  (Answer: Steel)

Once you are certain that the children understand the story and basic history of the Ferris Wheel, give them the assignment sheets.  Go over the instructions and give them about ten minutes to complete the written assignment.

3. Conclusion:

Show the National Geographic video so that the kids can answer the last few questions on the assignment sheet.  Go over the answers with them and let them check their own or a partner’s work.  Emphasize how exciting simple machines can be and challenge the children to find other stories and information books in the library that include these ideas.

  1. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis and Gilbert Ford.
  2. National Geographic Video about Ferris Wheels, found here: National Geographic Kids, Ferris Wheel Video (1:07)
  3. Eiffel Tower Graphic (attached)
  4. Home Insurance Building Graphic (attached)
  5. Student assignment sheet (attached)

I looked for a long time to try to come up with a way for the children to make a simple Ferris Wheel.  Making one would be a far better experience for them than drawing one!  However, I didn’t find anything I felt was simple enough for Early to Middle Elementary students to manage independently.  If you find a design that the kids can complete, more or less on their own, please let me know.

If you are fortunate enough to teach this lesson at the beginning of a forces unit, perhaps you can use the maker space over the course of the unit and include a Ferris Wheel making project.

The lesson is even more effective when taught after a visit to an amusement park.  In both of my elementary schools, students have taken a field trip to a local amusement park to look for simple machines and forces on the rides and attractions.  If you teach this lesson just after the field trip, you’ll have a captive audience!’

Recommended books for this lesson:

Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis and Gilbert Ford

Key Terms:

Wheels, Axles, Ferris Wheels, Chicago, World’s Fair, George Ferris


Eifel Tower

Home Insurance Building

Student Handout, Ferris Wheel