Machines, Tools and Inventions

This lesson aims to teach students the vocabulary of everyday tools like hammer, screwdriver and associated verbs–to hit, to screw, to lift. As well as other vocab related to technology and the functions of objects. Then they use that vocabulary to come up with a new invention. It can easily be adjusted to any level of student by raising or lowering your demands on detail from students.



Hand out the What Do You Need? worksheet. Students evaluate the situations and decide what they need to complete these tasks. I do the first one as a class, and make sure to prompt students about why they need that thing.

For example: I call out, “What do you need to make a cup of tea?”
Someone says, ‘a spoon’.
Then I ask why we need a spoon. What does it do? They usually say, “to put tea in the pot,” “to put sugar in the cup,” “to stir the tea.” This ensures that students think about the functions of things, pick up vocabulary like stir, and also that they understand the lesson. If students forget a fairly obvious object, like a teapot, I say something like, “And what do we put the tea in while it gets ready?” Or, “We pour the hot water right from the stove to the cup, right?”

After you’ve done the first example as a class, you can break them into pairs and small groups to work on the other examples, or do them all as a class. If you put them into groups or pairs, be sure to circulate and answer questions, correct vocabulary errors. Then go over it as a class and try to come up with a list that everyone agrees on.

What Can You Use

Now pass out the What Can You Use worksheet. This worksheet is adapted from a Advanced Communication Games by Jill Hadfield. The idea is to get students to think creatively about tools and to learn the vocab of functions: to lift, to pry, to push, to turn, to bend. Put students in groups and tell them to decide which tool they think is best for which situation and why. Make sure they explain in detail how they will use that tool. There are a few variations to this lesson:

  1. They can use a combination of objects for any one task
  2. They can only use one tool for each task
  3. They can only use each item once i.e. they have to come up with the best item for each task and the best task to use each item.


Now your students should have a good vocabulary of tools. I like to keep all the vocab up on the board so they can refer to it during this exercise. Describe to students something you would like to invent. Describe it in detail, what it would do, how it would work, all the moving parts. I use the following example:

A Cooking Machine
I would like to invent a machine that did all my cooking for me. There would be a big funnel on the top. I put all the meat and vegetables and salt and spices into the funnel. It goes into a big box that has knives in it to chop up everything. Then a heater automatically cooks everything, and a thermometer monitors the cooking process. Finally levers with scales measure everything and drop it onto the plate, meat on one side, veggies on the other. A computer input would let me enter recipes to make special foods.

Then I ask students to come up with their own invention. They should produce a diagram of the parts, and be able to describe how it works, what parts there are, etc. Obviously how much detail you demand depends on the level of the students.

One variation for advanced students, or for lower level students if they do it for homework to have enough time to think, is to invent a Rube Goldberg machine. These are machines where one action sets off a chain reaction that in steps, completes some task. Usually it uses only household objects. I give them this example to look over (click the picture for a full-size version):
Rube Goldberg Machine
Students love this idea, but less creative students may find it hard.

As a debriefing I usually open a discussion about needs. What kinds of things do they really want to see invented? What are some problems with existing devices? You can also give them concrete suggestions: Think of a time-saving invention, an invention that protects the environment, an invention that helps disabled people, etc…

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