Academic journal article Science Scope

Powering the Future: A Wind Turbine Design Challenge

Academic journal article Science Scope

Powering the Future: A Wind Turbine Design Challenge

Article excerpt


Nothing brings out the best in our eighth-grade physical science students quite like an engineering challenge. Our wind turbine design challenge has proved to be a favorite among students with its focus on teamwork and creativity and its (almost) sneaky reinforcement of numerous physics concepts. For this activity, pairs of students are challenged to build a set of blades that will capture wind energy and cause a small motor (acting as a generator) to spin, thereby creating electricity. The amount of electricity created is measured with a multimeter, and the group whose design generates the most electricity wins.

This activity introduces students to the pros and cons of a renewable energy source and allows them to experience how energy can change form from mechanical to electrical. Many aspects of the middle school physics curriculum, including energy, electricity, simple machines, force, and motion, can be reinforced with this activity. As such, we use it as a review and culmination; it is one of the last physics activities we teach in our curriculum. This open-ended inquiry focused on modern wind turbines could be an extension of "Windmills Are Going Around Again" (Moyer and Everett 2011), which concentrates on windmills and energy transformations through a pinwheel experiment. (See also "Generating Excitement: Build Your Own Generator to Study the Transfer of Energy" and the Tried and True column in this issue.)

All about wind power

As an introduction, students working in groups created a flowchart showing how wind energy is turned into electricity that powers our homes and schools. We then drew the flowchart as a class with input from students. This flowchart emphasized how the form of energy changes in this process:

Sun (electromagnetic energy) [right arrow] differentially warms the Earth (thermal energy) [right arrow] wind (mechanical energy) [right arrow] turns turbine rotor (mechanical energy) [right arrow] turbine turns metal coil inside generator (mechanical energy) [right arrow] metal coil moving in a magnetic field creates electricity (electric energy)

We asked students why wind energy is considered clean energy and discussed how wind creates electricity without burning fossil fuels. Next, we asked students to draw a wind turbine, and several students shared their drawings with the class. The drawings ranged from traditional windmills to modern turbines with long, skinny blades. This led into a slide show of various wind turbine designs: wooden windmills with buildings attached, old metal windmills on farms, large modern turbines in deserts and over water, as well as smaller vertical and horizontal designs for powering individual homes. Pictures for the slide show were found by searching for "windmill" and "wind turbine" images online. During this presentation, students had many questions, ranging from "How safe are the turbines?" to "How much do they cost?" We used these questions as a jumping-off point to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of wind power. Other questions, such as "Why are the blades so skinny?" and "How fast do the blades spin?" and "What are the blades made out of?," were used to connect turbine design to physics concepts such as motion, force, and Bernoulli's principle. All questions were written on the board for each class, and the most common questions were hung on the wall of the classroom for the duration of the wind turbine activity. We emphasized how turbine design is an emerging field of engineering where people are trying all sorts of creative ideas. To finish, we studied a diagram of a wind turbine. We pointed out that students would be designing and building the rotor, which is made up of blades attached to a central hub. We also labeled the gears, generator, anemometer (which measures wind speed), wind vane (which measures wind direction), and tower. We asked students to describe what they thought each part does and asked if they could identify any simple machines in the turbine. …

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