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What is Waterpower?


Students are introduced to waterpower as an historically important natural resource. By designing water wheels and studying the development of settlement communities in relation to waterpower, students make connections between the community and its natural resources and technological systems.

Vermont State Standards

2.2 Problem Solving Process; 3.10 Teamwork; 7.12 Matter, Motion, Forces and Energy; 7.16 Natural Resources, 7.17 Technological Systems; 7.18 Outputs and Impacts; 7.19 Designing Solutions

Materials Instructional Plan I. Building a Water Wheel

The activity gives students the opportunity to build a simple water wheel and demonstrates how the volume and head of the water affect the power of the wheel. Before beginning the activity, prepare the materials as follows:

  1. Cut the cylinders to a length of 6 inches. If you are using containers with covers, place the cover over the open end of the cylinder. Now, both ends of the cylinder should be enclosed.
  2. Make 5 parallel slits, 4" long, lengthwise in the container at equal distances apart. The slits should start one inch from either end of the container.
  3. Cut 5 plastic rectangles for each group from the milk or detergent bottle. The rectangles should measure 4" long by 2" wide.

To begin, divide the class into groups, each of which will act as a team of engineers designing its own water wheel. Either provide instructions for building the water wheels verbally, or let the groups figure out what to do with the materials on their own.

  1. Insert the plastic rectangles into the slits of the cylinder. Glue or tape in place with waterproof glue or packing tape.
  2. Mark the center point on each end of the cylinder and make a small hole, ¼" in diameter at this spot. (This is where you will insert the dowel.)
  3. Make openings on opposite sides of the plastic bucket near the top ½" in diameter.
  4. Insert the dowel through on side of the bucket. Pass the dowel through the cylinder, through the opposite side of the bucket. The cylinder (water wheel) should be resting on the dowel, suspended over the bucket.

Instruct each group to conduct and take notes on two experiments with their water wheels. First, pour more or less water over the wheel, using the detergent bottle (for more water) and the milk jug (for less water). How does the volume of water affect the action of the wheel? Next, change the head (distance the water falls before it reaches the wheel). How does changing the head affect the wheel?

Compare each group's results in a class discussion.

II. Choosing a Mill Site

This activity will help students understand how settlers may have chosen sites for their towns. The ability of settlers to harness waterpower for sawmills and gristmills greatly contributed to the selection of a site for a town or dwelling. With the 1810 Map of Vermont by James Whitelaw, use the legend to find the symbol for sawmill and gristmill and locate millsites in Addison County. Create a chart listing the number and type of mills in each Addison County town in 1810.

Look especially at Shoreham on the Whitelaw map and note the location of the mills. Now fast forward forty-seven years and study the detail of Shoreham from the 1857 Map of Vermont by H.F. Walling. Determine which three areas of Shoreham have the most number of people (the area near Larrabees Point on the Lake, Shoreham Village at the center, and Rich's Mills) and loosely calculate density by counting the number of names of property owners in each of three areas. Why are these areas more populated than others? What area corresponds to the location of the mills on the Whitelaw map?

If possible, take your class on a field trip to a river or stream to locate a potential mill site. What are the features you will look for in the water source? Will this stream run all year round? How can a seasonal stream be used to power a mill?


Assess constructed water wheels for completion. Collect or check notes on the experiments to assess completion and depth of comprehension.

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