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From Mule to Machines

In the 1800’s the canal system changed the way freight was moved in our country. Learn more about how mules played an integral role in the canals and were later replaced by machines.

  • Grade 3
    Grade 4
    Grade 5
  • Multiple Lesson Periods
  • Directions

    1. A mule is an animal that is part horse and part donkey. Mules are bigger and stronger than a donkey and hardier than a horse. They are ideal animals to pull heavy loads. Have students look at pictures of horses, donkeys and mules. How do their appearances differ?
    2. Mules were used to tow or pull boats through the canals. The mules were attached to the boats by ropes. They would walk on a tow path and pull the boats through the canal at about 4 miles per hour. The boats could only travel as fast as the mules could walk. Share pictures of mules from the canal era and discuss their role with students.
    3. As the canal system was modernized, mules were replaced by machines. Ask students what types of machines replaced these animals? If the machines are an improvement to the canals? What are some of the benefits of using machines?
    4. Students commemorate the role that mules played in the canals by creating a sculpture of a mule out of Model Magic®. Make two egg-shaped pieces of modeling compound, a smaller one for the head and a larger one for the body. Roll 5 logs of Model Magic to create a neck and four legs. Model Magic that is fresh from the pack will stick to itself. Dried pieces can be glued together. Attach the legs to the body. Use additional pieces of modeling compound add details and features to bring the mule to life!
  • Standards

    LA: Read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grade level text complexity band independently and proficiently.

    LA: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher led) with diverse partners on grade level topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

    LA: Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and refocusing the inquiry when appropriate.

    SCI: Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

    SS: Explore factors that contribute to one's personal identity such as interests, capabilities, and perceptions.

    SS: Identify and use various sources for reconstructing the past, such as documents, letters, diaries, maps, textbooks, photos, and others.

    SS: Examine the interaction of human beings and their physical environment, the use of land, building of cities, and ecosystem changes in selected locales and regions.

    SS: Describe how we depend upon workers with specialized jobs and the ways in which they contribute to the productions and exchange of goods and services.

    SS: Identify and describe examples in which science and technology have changed the lives of people, such as in homemaking, childcare, work, transportation, and communication.

    VA: Intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of experiences and ideas.

    VA: Select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of ideas.

  • Adaptations

    Set up a classroom learning center focused on The National Canal Museum, located in Easton, PA. The museum can be toured virtually at

    Encourage student groups to create a timeline illustrating the technological progression of transportation. Add illustrations to highlight the timeline text. Display timelines in the classroom.

    Today hydraulic powered machines are used to move boats through canals. Invite students to sketch a drawing showing how the machines are engineered. Provide an explanation of the process to accompany the illustration.

    A mule is an animal hybrid. Challenge students to research other hybrids in the animal kingdom. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of creating hybrids.


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