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Up, Up, and Away with Parachutes

The first time I tried designing parachutes in STEM class I was flabbergasted by how much the students were engaged and how much they loved it.

It could be because they stood on the tabletops to launch their parachutes!

It is really an enlightening challenge and I have some tips for you about what to expect as students tackle this.

STEM Challenge- Design a parachute that will take its cargo to the ground safely. This blog post includes some variations of our project!

There are stages that we follow as we design our parachutes. Some of the problems we encountered were a surprise for me the first time and I learned from the test class how to better prepare the next group.

  • The canopy
  • The strings
  • The cargo
  • Variations

Are you ready to sail away?

The Canopy

My vision of a parachute would be that it is round and has strings around the edge of the circle that connects to the cargo. Imagine my surprise when students didn’t know how to begin. So, the first thing we had to do was stop and take a look at some images of parachutes.

STEM Challenge- Design a parachute that will take its cargo to the ground safely. Start with learning how to make a canopy and how to make a circle!

I really thought students would know to cut out a circle from the tissue paper we used. They did not! They cut triangles, rectangles, and odd shapes. I also saw many teams making a rectangle and then cutting a hole in the center.

So, we stopped to talk! I displayed some images of different parachutes and we talked about their shapes and reasons for the canopy. When they began to understand the size and shape of the canopy would need to be designed to “catch” the most air, we were ready to go back to work!

TIP: But, I then discovered that cutting out a circle was something they did not know how to do. I helped the first class and with subsequent classes, I worked on how to make circles. We used heavy brown paper and folded a square in half and in half again. Then we cut an arc across that folded paper and made some really nice circular shapes! These became tracing templates.

Don’t assume students know how to do things like this. Yes, I did help with how to do these things- but these were third graders. They had never made parachutes or circles before. It was a time to learn.

The Strings

Okay, getting the canopies ready was a challenge. On to the strings.

With dismay I watched students cutting strings of different lengths and then attaching the string to the center of their canopies!

You know what I had to do. I could have stopped and talked about measuring and where to attach the strings. I didn’t. I let them do it their way. And when those canopies were sent flying they crashed. Then we stopped to talk.

Yes, sometimes I help and sometimes I let students learn by doing!

STEM Challenge- Design a parachute that will take its cargo to the ground safely. Students will need rulers to measure the length of the parachute strings!

We stopped class and I had one team demonstrate their canopy with the strings in the middle and we all chimed in about what we could see happening. The canopy didn’t open to catch air. It flew upward. How could we fix this?

Students went back to work by attaching those strings around the edges.

TIP: If you have students younger than third graders you might consider cutting their strings for them. Give them a piece of tissue paper and pre-cut strings and let them do the rest.

TIP: How do they attach the strings? Students really wanted to make a hole in the tissue and tie the string to the tissue paper. This does not work. The paper tears easily. Clear tape works the best!

The Cargo

The first year we tried parachutes our cargo was a Lego man. Part of the challenge was to attach the Lego man to the parachute. This added some difficulty to the challenge because my rule was that Lego man needed a harness. Students wanted to just tie the parachute strings around the man- but my rule said they could not. They made backpack harnesses out of pipe cleaners!

STEM Challenge- Design a parachute that will take its cargo to the ground safely. Check this blog post for more info!

The fun part was dropping the parachutes. Students stood on my tabletops and opened the canopies as wide as possible and then let go. Some canopies floated to the ground and some twisted and crashed. There was definitely a learning curve on how to drop them.

TIP: Have a sharing time at the end of class so every team can show off their parachutes. Just know that every student will want a turn to be the dropper!

Variations

We have tried parachutes in many variations! My fifth graders have to design a parachute to drop an egg. Their challenge includes building the container to protect the egg.

Recently I tried a fourth grade group and we built moon landers. The idea was that a parachute would need to drop to the surface of the moon and land a spacecraft rover safely. We built the rovers our of Lego.

STEM Challenge- Design a parachute that will take its cargo to the ground safely. The cargo happens to be made of Lego so the parachute must work!

This turned out to be quite a challenge! If that Lego space craft hit the floor too hard it shattered into a pile of broken bricks! Designing the best wind-catching parachute was essential.

One year in second grade we read a picture book about spiders and then built spider parachutes. This was because the spiderlings in the book created “balloons” from their silk to fly away from their cocoon. So we built parachutes for them.

STEM Challenge- Design a parachute that will take its cargo to the ground safely. The cargo is a plastic spider!

The challenge was made even more fun because the students also had to make the spiders. I allowed the second graders to stand on a table to drop their parachutes, but their tables were much lower to the ground than our upper elementary lab.

No matter what version you decide to try you cannot go wrong with trying parachutes. I am linking some parachute resources below for you!