First Class Levers

Jennifer Krings, Ridgeway Community School, Houston, MN
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This is an investigative activity to introduce the topic of levers, it should be done in an area with many different work surfaces including tables and open floor areas (lunch room or gym would be ideal). Students will be given various objects to investigate how levers work and why they might be useful. They will write their observations in their journals to be discussed as a large group during the next lesson.

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Learning Goals

Students will gain general experience with levers, learn lever concepts and vocabulary, and use critical thinking skills to conduct investigations and build explanations. The students will learn about lever arm, fulcrum, load, and effort while creating their own lever systems.

Context for Use

This field exercise is designed for fourth and fifth grade students, and can be done with varying class sizes. At least two class periods are needed: one to do the activity, and one to discuss the observations and results. Students should work in pairs or groups of three.

The students will need several items for their lever creations. Give them as many different boards as you are comfortable with, these should be ranging in size and can be as small as a ruler to as large as a 2"X10"X12'. If you wish to do this in your classroom instead, you may cut out the larger sized levers. They will also need items to be used for the fulcrum. These could be an eraser for the smaller levers or a sandbag or sturdy box for the larger ones. They should also be given items of varying size and mass to test their levers with. If you are using the large pieces of wood, let the students stand on the board like a teeter-totter (make sure you watch this group very closely and do not let them use a fulcrum of a dangerous height).

This investigation is used as an introduction to levers and could be used at any age level with different expectations as to their observations and data collected.

Subject: Physics:Classical Mechanics
Resource Type: Activities:Field Activity
Special Interest: Field-Based Teaching and Learning
Grade Level: Intermediate (3-5)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Enhancing your Teaching:Teaching in the Field

Description and Teaching Materials

This introductory lever investigation should be introduced in a fun way. Begin by discussing their playground experience - ask them if they have ever been on a teeter-totter (we do still have some in our area, so most students have). Discuss what they think was happening on the teeter-totter - why were they going up or down? After this brief introduction tell the students it is their job to create an effective lever - a simple machine with a rigid bar that is free to pivot on a fixed point. I would not go deeper than this into vocabulary at this point in the lesson.

Now you may show the students the materials they have to work with. Discuss any safety rules that may be unique to this investigation. Also, inform the students that they should try to create more than one lever. You may want to set up stations that they can rotate too, or have a whistle or signal for every one to return to the supply station and try something new. Divide the students into their groups and let them go. About five minutes before the end of class, reconvene as a large group to put supplies away and to instruct the students to complete any of their observations and reread them as homework to discuss them the next day.

During the class discussion the next day, let each group share one observation so that each group will be able to share an original idea. Lead the discussion so you may come to discover some key vocabulary together such as fulcrum, lever arm, advantage, resistance, load, and/or effort. If you wish, give the students a pen or pencil of a different color than the one they used the day before, so they may put vocabulary words into their journals, perhaps where they made an observation about it.

Near the end of the discussion, you and the students should have generated definitions and a picture of a class 1 lever that can be labeled and is accessible to all students (either in their notes or on a class note board or similar). You may also have them turn in their drawing with notes on how their lever works at the end of the discussion.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity is new to my classroom, so at this time my only speculation of a concern would be students may fool around during the investigation. This may occur by not completing the task at hand or by trying to fling things off of their levers. This could be avoided by giving them a few moments to get it out of their systems, or by making sure this is a rule discussed at the beginning of the investigation.


During the investigation, an informal assessment of group cohesiveness and cooperation should be taken. Students will have to discuss their observations at the end of the activity and create a labeled drawing of a class 1 lever. Also, during the discussion, notes should be taken as to whether or not students participated, and if they were able to back up an observation with a hypothesis or suspected reason.


5. II. D. 1. The student will investigate the use of a lever, inclined plane and wheel and axle to move objects.

References and Resources