Monday, August 20, 2012

Airplane Science

Just in time to refresh kids' paper airplane skills before the school year begins... it's Airplane Science!

Now that summer reading is over and I have a full year at my branch under my belt, it's time to put into action the programming aspect of my science initiative: monthly science programming, alternating between school-age and preschool audiences. The first program in this new year-round series took place a week and a half ago. Here's what we did for Airplane Science:

To begin our program, I asked the kiddos what they knew about flight. What sorts of things can fly? How do they accomplish flight? I guided conversation toward airplanes specifically, and then I posed the major question: how do airplanes fly through the air? Kids offered wings, air, propellers, and engines as possible explanations for how airplanes fly, at which point it was my cue to explain (briefly) the science behind airplanes--and paper airplanes, our hands-on component for the program.

My simplified explanation was two-fold. First I showed them a diagram from How Stuff Works that illustrates the various forces at work on an airplane during flight: thrust, drag, gravity, and lift. We talked about the relationship of those forces for a minute, ending with the question of how the forces need to be balanced for flight to occur. Second, then, was an explanation of Bernoulli's Principle and how it relates to flight and airplane design. I showed a second diagram, but the kids found the physical demonstration more interesting: hovering a ping-pong ball with a hair dryer.

After a few minutes for lingering questions and my prompting the kids to think about how the shape of wings, size of wings, etc., might affect the flight of paper airplanes, I mentioned that the Wright brothers tested some of their airplane designs in paper first. Then I set everyone free to make their own test models. I had four stations set up with paper, markers for writing names and decorating, straws and tape (when necessary), and instructions on how to make four different paper airplanes: the arrow, the dart, the moth, and the hoop glider. I spent the next fifteen minutes of construction time moving about the program room helping kids as they requested assistance in their airplane-making. A number of the program-goers had parents in tow, and those parents were a huge help in assembling test planes, too. I encouraged the kiddos to think about how they might improve on the paper airplanes, and to make modifications to the design accordingly. At the end of our construction time, we had a huge variety of planes ready for testing.

We finished off the program with what I called our Airplane Olympics (the Olympics were in full swing at this point!). Before the program, I had set up a masking tape starting line and marked off 25 feet in one-foot intervals--perfect to measuring the success of our planes. All of the kids got a turn to throw each of their designs. I'm happy to say that at least one of every child's designs flew well--no one felt like their paper airplanes failed. Several of the planes did funny tricks or flipped back behind the thrower, and these trials got good-hearted laughs from everyone. Also, once everyone had seen a dozen or so flights, I started asking kids to predict what certain airplane models might do when thrown. By the end of our series of about 75 test flights, kids were able to guess which models would glide far and which might dive-bomb the spectators (and shield their eyes accordingly). Our top performer flew 24 feet.

We had a final plane toss with our top three models, and our top performer flew 24 feet. I then wrapped up the program by encouraging the kids to continue to refine their paper airplane designs for maximum flight time and distance. I had plenty of folding instructions and books on airplanes (of the paper and real varieties) available for kids who wanted to continue their science exploration at home, and many kids left with these materials in addition to the paper airplanes they had made and tested. I think this program was a great balance between the scientific principles of flight and fun, hands-on experimentation. I highly recommend giving this program, or one like it, a shot at your library.


  1. Wonder of the Day #626 How Far Can A Paper Airplane Fly? would be great for this program!

  2. Check out Wonder of the Day #626 How Far Can A Paper Airplane Fly? at It's a great match for this program!

  3. This is a WONDERful and exciting post, Amy! Thanks for taking flight with our imagination!
    Have a super day,
    Wonderopolis :)

  4. I love the ping pong ball and hair dryer idea! Thanks!

  5. What is the minimum age that you recommend for this program? Thanks!

    1. I've offered this program for K-5 kids, but it could easily be offered to middle schoolers. Preschoolers could do it with help, too, I think.