Hand Held Windmills – Messy Learning At Its Finest

A few weeks back I posted about a training we did with teachers using windmills and wind turbines. This past week Lou Loftin and I were the show at a local school’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Night designed to get families fired up about STEM education. Instead of the standing kits we used with the teachers that can be used as windmills and turbines, and because we only had 50 minutes for this activity, we utilized hand held wind mills we had constructed ourselves the day before … 50 of them … now we have them for future trainings as well.

Video  – Click here to see video of the windmills in action.

The hand held windmills are made from wood dowels, closet rod, PVC pipe, swimming “noodles” cut 3 inches wide, a washer, and hot glue. Using a power saw , drill press and a hot glue gun it took us about 4 hours to make 50 windmills.


Hand held windmills ready for use … note fans set up on tables in the background.

Lou introduced the activity … he pointed out the materials they could choose from to design the blades for the windmills – wooden skewers like you would use for shish-ka-bob, and various materials for blades (paper plates, cups, cardboard, plastic sheets and more). It was explained that once engineered and constructed the windmills would be tested to see how much work they could do. A cup would be attached with string and marbles would be lifted by the wind power. Data would be collected on how many marbles could be lifted and then redesign would be encouraged to lift more marbles.

NOTE: Click on the photos below to see them larger.














Once we gave the go ahead to start hands got busy. Materials were organized, discussions on design commenced, and within five minutes windmills began taking shape. Soon fans were being turned on to test early designs. Redesign and strengthening of or reattachment of the blades usually followed. Next strings tied to plastic cups were attached so it could be determined just how much work the design could really accomplish. After 10 or so marbles were lifted and it was determined that was the maximum the design could accomplish, many thought through changes that could be made to improve the design to lift more weight.
















When time was up we re-seated everyone for a quick debrief. It was noted how different many of the designs were. We also explained how in the classroom this activity could go on for days. This could be the introductory experience, but then only one material could be allowed so that the exact blade design could be tested to see what shape, angle (we actually have protractor-like measuring devices to adjust the angle), size and more. Then materials could be tried to find which material made the most efficient design. Lots of messy learning as well as writing and sharing opportunities here. Think of video-conferencing with other schools to share designs or talking with experts. Blogging to share experiences, photographs and more. Add your own experiences and ideas in the comments.

Learning is messy!


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6 thoughts on “Hand Held Windmills – Messy Learning At Its Finest

  1. Your windmill projects are fabulous! I read and commented on your post having the teachers get together and make the standing windmills as well. I love these projects, and getting the parents involved as well is a great idea. Now a days everyone is so busy and in a hurry it is great to see families working together on fun and interesting projects. The windmills are so cool and it is neat to see how people create so many different designs, I might just have to try these projects out for myself one day!
    Whitley Byrd

    Hi Whitley – please do try them. And if you need more info to pull it off, let me know!

  2. I love the idea of having kids engineer windmills and would love to do this when we’re exploring fossil fuels and alternative energy! Could you please email or reply with more detailed instructions on how you built those? (I did see your list of materials!) Thanks! Jennifer Clair

    • Hi Jennifer – We’ve been talking about posting more detailed instructions – hope to do so, but not sure when that will happen. I do believe there are commercially made versions as well, I’ll see if I can get info on that. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I absolutely love this windmill STEM challenge! Do you have detailed instructions for this? I would love to facilitate this activity for my students but would hate to reinvent the “wheel”.
    LOVE your BLOG!!!

    • Hi Kristen – It’s pretty much as laid out in the post as far as what you do during the lesson which is as little as possible basically. You have the materials laid out, have the skewers available and purposely say little else other than you need to design a windmill that will pick up as much weight as possible … once you try out your design then redesign to make it better and repeat over and over … they have to figure it out. We made the handheld windmill wands ourselves, but my understanding is that some companies sell them … or at least something similar. If you want info about that let me know by adding a comment and I will ask about them. We should build some more and do a step by step video of how to do it. We’ve talked about doing so … but we are time crunched to say the least. Thanks for your comment!