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Build a Machine to Lift Water

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Grade Range
Group Size
3-4 students
Active Time
6 hours
Total Time
6 hours
Area of Science
Mechanical Engineering
Key Concepts
Water resources, engineering design
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies
Developed in partnership with Global Problem Solvers: The Series  
Build a Machine to Lift Water - STEM Lesson Plan


What would your students do if your town's water supply was cut off due to an equipment failure or natural disaster? Inspired by Global Problem Solvers: The Series, in this lesson plan they will tackle a real-world engineering challenge by building a prototype of a device that can manually pump water during an emergency. They will also think like entrepreneurs and come up with a business plan for how their device could be produced, sold, and used in the real world.

This lesson is one of three independent lesson plans inspired by Global Problem Solvers: The Series. You can read more about the series and the lesson plans available from Science Buddies on the Blog: 5 Reasons Global Problem Solvers: The Series Will Inspire STEM Interest in Your Students.

Learning Objectives

NGSS Alignment

This lesson helps students prepare for these Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations:
This lesson focuses on these aspects of NGSS Three Dimensional Learning:

Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Science & Engineering Practices 3rd–5th grade
Asking Questions and Defining Problems. Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process, or system and includes several criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions. Generate and compare multiple solutions to a problem based on how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the design problem.

Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. Plan and conduct an investigation collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, using fair tests in which variables are controlled and the number of trials considered.

6th–8th grade
Asking Questions and Defining Problems. Define a design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process or system and includes multiple criteria and constraints, including scientific knowledge that may limit possible solutions.

Engaging in Argument from Evidence. Evaluate competing design solutions based on jointly developed and agreed-upon design criteria.

Developing and Using Models. Develop a model to generate data to test ideas about designed systems, including those representing inputs and outputs.
Disciplinary Core Ideas 3rd–5th grade
ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems. Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account.

ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions. Research on a problem should be carried out before beginning to design a solution. Testing a solution involves investigating how well it performs under a range of likely conditions.

Tests are often designed to identify failure points or difficulties, which suggest the elements of the design that need to be improved.

ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution. Different solutions need to be tested in order to determine which of them best solves the problem, given the criteria and the constraints.

6th–8th grade
ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems. The more precisely a design task's criteria and constraints can be defined, the more likely it is that the designed solution will be successful. Specification of constraints includes consideration of scientific principles and other relevant knowledge that are likely to limit possible solutions.

ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions. A solution needs to be tested, and then modified on the basis of the test results, in order to improve it.

ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution. The iterative process of testing the most promising solutions and modifying what is proposed on the basis of the test results leads to greater refinement and ultimately to an optimal solution.
Crosscutting Concepts 3rd–5th grade
Influence of Science, Engineering, and Technology on Society and the Natural World.
Engineers improve existing technologies or develop new ones to increase their benefits, decrease known risks, and meet societal demands.

6th–8th grade
Influence of Science, Engineering, and Technology on Society and the Natural World.
The uses of technologies and limitations on their use are driven by individual or societal needs, desires, and values; by the findings of scientific research; and by differences in such factors as climate, natural resources, and economic conditions.


Plastic cups, a plastic bottle, a cardboard and tube, scissors, tape, popsicle sticks, a measuring cup and shallow containers

Since this is an engineering design project, there is not a specific list of required materials. You can provide your students with an assortment of materials and/or let them gather materials from home. Here are some suggestions:

Background Information for Teachers

This section contains a quick review for teachers of the science and concepts covered in this lesson.

Global Problem Solvers: The Series pits a group of teenagers against some tough real-world engineering challenges. You can use this video series to help frame engineering problems for your students and show how engineers can have real-world impact and help people. Watch this trailer for an introduction to the first season of the show, which focuses on problems with village water supply in Malawi:

Trailer for Global Problem Solvers Season 1

You can connect the series to your students' lives. Do they know where their water comes from? What would happen if a natural disaster cut off their town's water supply? These are the types of challenges that real engineers tackle to help improve people's lives and make the world a better place. The Global Problem Solvers use a process called social entrepreneurship to tackle problems. You can read more about the teen Global Problem Solvers, their "superpowers," and their problem-solving process in 5 Reasons Global Problem Solvers: The Series Will Inspire STEM Interest in Your Students.

In this project, your students will be challenged to build a prototype of a device that can manually lift water. Throughout history (and well before electricity was invented), humans have come up with various ingenious ways to move water from one location to another. Your students might be familiar with manual pumps or wells that use a rope and bucket to lift water out of the ground (Figure 1). But what about more obscure devices like an Archimedes screw or Persian wheel? (Figure 2)?

Photo of a bucket on the end of a spout for a water pump A child standing next to a water well
Figure 1. (A) A manual pump. (B) A well with a rope, bucket, and pulley.

A cross-sectional drawing of an Archimedes screw shows how a screw in a tube can move water from low areas to high areas Illustration of a Persian water wheel
Figure 2. (A) Drawing of an Archimedes screw. (B) Drawing of a Persian wheel (This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post (archive)).

This is an open-ended project, and there are many different options for what your students can build. They could build a version of one of the historical devices shown above or come up with something completely new. Figure 3 shows a few examples built with readily available materials.

Photo of a homemade Persian water wheel A homemade Archimedes screw A cup attached to a pulley suspended from a frame of wooden skewers and cork
Figure 3. Prototypes of three different devices that can be used to lift water. (A) A Persian wheel. (B) An Archimedes screw. (C) A rope and pulley with a bucket attached.

Global Problem Solvers: The Series is based on a 7-step process of social entrepreneurship (PDF). This process is similar, but not identical, to the engineering design process that you may already be familiar with. The worksheet provided for students in this lesson is tailored to fit this specific project and adds the business aspects of social entrepreneurship to the engineering design process.

Prep Work (15 minutes)

Engage (1 hour)

Explore (4 hours)

Reflect (1 hour)


Make Career Connections

Lesson Plan Variations

Free science fair projects.