Use upcycled materials to create a wind turbine tower! This project was inspired by “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," the story of how a boy named William Kamkwamba came together with his friends to create windmills that harnessed energy for his village in Malawi. William tinkered with junk collected from a junkyard and some wood cut from trees with the help of his peers to create his “electric wind.” Find this book at your next visit to reDiscover Center. Written and illustrated by William Kamwamba and Bryan Mealer.
William Kamkwamba was only 14 years old when he built a windmill from scratch; he refused to be limited by poverty. When famine hit Malawi and he was forced out of school, William continued to study on his own. Not only did he study, but he also looked for solutions. Now, William is an inventor, an engineer, the author of the book “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” and part of an organization called “Moving Windmills.”
William describes his windmill tower as the tallest structure in the village. In fact, he needed to remake his original windmill tower to add height to clear nearby trees so that the windmill blades would have access to uninterrupted airflow. He describes the creaks and groans the tower made when the wind was strong. He had to cement the legs in the ground to add stability.
In this maker activity, you will build a model windmill tower structure, solving problems through engineering and tinkering.
Questions to Explore
What is the optimal height of the tower for a wind turbine? What materials do you have or can collect easily that can be built into a sturdy windmill tower? In the book, William built the windmill structure by completing one level at a time and climbing upon it to build the next. What would you do?
Because wind speed increases with height, taller towers enable turbines to capture more energy and generate more electricity. Winds at elevations of 30 meters (roughly 100 feet) or higher are also less turbulent.
STEP 1 - Gather Your Materials
Like William, you can use what you have at hand to build your tower. Can you make a strong structure using just materials from around your home, classroom, or out of the nearest recycling bin?
Struts: Straws, Skewers, Newspaper rolled into tight cylinders, cardboard strips
Connectors: Masking tape, Glue, Pins, Brads
Base: Cardboard sheet, Board, Tabletop (check with an adult if it's ok to tape your tower directly to the table)
What materials will you make with? If you don't have something, what alternatives can you use?
STEP 2 - SKETCH OUT YOUR IDEAS
What made William Kamkwamba's windmill tower structure withstand the strong winds of Malawi? He describes his engineering process in his book. Find these passages and write out the quote as an inspiration.
A truss is a structure that uses triangles to provide strength and stability while using materials efficiently. Look for triangles in the structures all around you. Where do you see how it's used for structural stability?
Draw a sketch of your tower. This sketch is a tool to help you plan your building. How many pieces will you need? How many connections?
STEP 3 - GET MAKING
After creating a pinwheel, create the tower structure to hoist the wheel up. Use this guide to learn how to make Newspaper Tubes by Creative Ideas. How can you create a tower that is structured to be sturdy?
STEP 4 - ATTACH COMPONENTS
Attach the pinwheel to the turbine tower. Test the structure. Does it bend in the wind? Does it fall over? Do you need to make a base and secure the feet to it? How many levels do you need to support the pinwheel? Can it withstand a wind test? Get a fan or blow dryer and try it!
For very young Makers, practice using scissors and tape together. Pinwheels can be purchased or made as a fun family activity. The young readers version of the story is best for ages 4 -8. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Picture Book Edition.
For chapter book readers, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Young Reader's Edition is available.
For voracious readers, the original autobiographical novel version is highly recommended.
I hope this activity is something you can get inspired to do as you read the book.
Further discovery: Find out how electric currents work, William was especially proud of the way he created the power conversion to electrify his home. Learn about how wind turbines convert generated electric currents to AC current that is used for powering household items.
Once you have finished your puppets, share it with friends and family. If you want to share a picture on social media, make sure to tag @reDiscoverCtr. We'd love to see your finger puppets!!
This activity guide was compiled and written by Julianna Ostrovsky.