Paper Airplane Science
During my undergraduate education at Penn State, I learned that students learn best when they are in the driver's seat - when they are figuring out what to study, when they are designing the study, when they are identifying the problem and creating the experiment. This is not usually feasible in a public school setting, but in a homeschool, why not? It makes perfect sense.
In this experiment, the student is in control. After you teach her about the scientific method, give her the printable from this scientific method post or the printable below (they are basically the same, but the one below includes some follow up questions), and let her go.
If she has never had to design her own experiment before, your student may need help in coming up with her own hypothesis and experiment steps. If it's an unfamiliar process because you've always done recipe-style science before, she will need some hand-holding.
Teaching the scientific method using the paper airplane lab (click here for printable lab)
Here are the basic steps with some tips:
- Identify a problem or question related to paper airplanes. I used to give these examples:
- What airplane design will fly the furthest?
- What kind of material will help my paper airplane fly the furthest?
- What effect does weight have on a paper airplane?
- What kind of paper airplane will fly in a loop?
- Research the question. I personally wouldn't have your student look into other experiments and their results or try to answer their question, but I would have her research different paper airplane designs if that is a variable in her experiment. (Note - if her question is something like the last one above, she may have to do some research to find airplane designs that are supposed to make loops.)
- Write a hypothesis. It should look something like this:
- I think the (design name) airplane will fly the furthest.
- I think the airplane made of cardstock will fly furthest, and the airplane made of newspaper will fly the shortest.
- I think the lightest airplane will fly the furthest.
- I think the (design name) will fly in a loop.
- Create an experiment to test the hypothesis. Remind your student that she should do at least 3 trials for each step of her plan. Also, to avoid unnecessary error, she should make a concerted attempt to throw the airplane in exactly the same way each time. That is, throw it in the same place (inside or outside - careful of the wind), in the same conditions (wind or ceiling fan), and with the same strength (results wouldn't be valid if she threw one hard and one gently).
- Observe and analyze the results. Hypotheses that reference distance flown lend themselves very nicely to creating bar graphs. Graphing is an important mathy skill that is used frequently in science, so if you have the opportunity, do it! Look for patterns here - what defines flying the best? What do the results mean?
- Draw conclusions. The follow up questions on the lab sheet below really help to do this, but if you aren't using it, here they are for your discussion:
- If you did this experiment again, would you get the same results? Why or why not?
- Will someone else who follows your procedure get the same data? Why or why not?
- Besides weight, what factors affect the flight of a paper airplane?
- How else could you have designed the experiment to test this hypothesis?
- Which variables could you manipulate? Which were fixed?
- Did your data support or disprove the hypothesis? Explain.
- Why did we fly paper airplanes? (In other words, what did you learn from this activity?)
- Report your findings. I probably wouldn't ask my homeschooled kids to write a lab report (although, if they were in high school, it might be a useful skill in prepping for college), but I would certainly ask them to tell their dad over dinner all about the experiment. They designed it, created the hypothesis, and tested it all on their own, so they will probably be excited about talking it up. Plus, who doesn't like paper airplanes?
I love this paper airplane lab, and I did it with every new class I taught, always during the first week so that the kids could see some ownership of their scientific process and also so they could see how much fun science can be. Will you try it out at the beginning of the new school year?