One spring day my principal announced we would be having a STEM lab the following year. I never even thought twice about this! I applied for the job and two months later I was cleaning out our lab and getting ready for school to begin. What an exciting adventure was ahead of me!
But, I had zero resources. I was given a few idea books and I found blogs online that gave me some ideas for projects to use at the beginning of the year. One of those projects was about paper airplanes. I knew this was the perfect project because kids love throwing planes anyway. Why not take that enthusiasm and turn it into a science experiment and design project!
This project has many parts!
I started planning for the paper airplane challenge and it quickly blossomed into a major experiment. It involves testing, data keeping, improving the design, and using the data for building a final plane.
It also took some clever structuring of the testing and measuring to get an entire class through the challenge.
This is a multi-day project for sure:
- Exploring Day
- Testing Day
- Designing Day
Look for some tips on management as you read through these steps!
This was the most fun day ever! Imagine a group of fourth graders that are given a stack of paper and told to build and fly paper airplanes– with no rules!
There were many styles of paper airplanes and there were some expert folders. I also had many students that did not know how to fold a plane at all. I have a directions sheet that is provided in this resource and I held tutoring sessions at one of our large work tables. Soon we had planes zipping all over the place!
TIP: Have your experts teach others how to fold planes or have a learning session with you showing how to do this. I had some students that resorted to just twisting a long skinny piece of paper and throwing it as their airplane model. I did not allow this! The folded plane had to resemble a streamlined airplane with wings and a pointed tip or we did not fly it.
We actually learn the testing procedure and start testing our models on Day 1 of this multi-day activity. The basic testing procedure is to fold one plane per team. Every team must fold the exact same kind of plane. The team throws the plane 3 times and then averages the flight distances.
So, wow, just think about the classroom management needed for this! Here are the basic procedures I use. Mind you, we talk about all of this at length before we begin!
- Every team folds a new plane and they are all folded the same. (Control that variable)
- Every team chooses one person to be the plane thrower. (Again, we are trying to control a variable. Even though the same person throws each time, it is likely that the throws will not be exactly alike.)
- I stretch a long reel measuring tape along the longest length of our lab. It is taped to the floor in a few spots. It’s a meter tape and we measure in meters/cm.
- Each team’s flyer lines up at the end of the tape reel. One student at a time throws a plane.
- Each team also sends a spotter to the landing zone to help spot the landing point of each plane.
- I call out the measurement of the plane – like this 7.8- which means 7 meters, 80 centimeters.
- A third team member records this measurement.
- This is repeated until each team has flown the plane 3 times. Then all team members go back to their work area and average the flights.
- The team modifies the plane and we test it again. This is repeated one more time.
TIP: Practice this procedure! I use one team as a demo team and then we all fly one time to practice the entire thing.
The whole point of experimenting with the planes and modifications is to design an ultimate paper plane!
Students now use their data and the data of the entire class to build a brand new plane by choosing the best modifications. Will they use their data to make an informed decision? Will they try an untested modification? Will combining the modifications create new problems?
What great learning opportunities!
TIP: Kids will want to test different kinds of paper as one of the modifications. Above and below you can see the different kinds of paper we have tried. This includes foil, parchment, cardstock, construction paper, and lined notebook paper. Which do you think works best?
This is one of the multi-day events that my classes look forward to! Airplane week brings a cheer when the kids see it on our agenda. They love to throw planes and this resource adds so much learning to such a simple activity!