Make a "Whirlybird" from Paper
AbstractHave you ever seen a helicopter flying through the sky? It can be difficult to do a science project with a real helicopter, so in this project we will show you how to make a miniature paper helicopter called a whirlybird. Will your whirlybird be able to stay in the air as you add paper clips as weights? Try this project to find out!
This project was adapted from the NASA Explores Program:
NASA. (n.d.). Rotor Motor Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Retrieved June 26, 2015.
Build a paper "whirlybird" and see if adding weights makes it fall faster.
Have you ever seen a helicopter flying through the sky? How do they stay up in the air? Helicopters have to overcome gravity, which pulls them down toward Earth. They do this with spinning blades that generate lift, which helps keep them up in the air. As the blades spin, they have to overcome drag, or air resistance, which tries to slow them down.
Real helicopters have motors that make the blades spin. In this project, you will build a miniature paper helicopter, called a whirlybird, like the one in Figure 1. The whirlybird does not have a motor, but because of its special shape, its blades will still spin when it falls. This helps generate lift and slows the whirlybird down. Do you think adding more weights (paper clips) to the whirlybird will make it fall faster? Try this project to find out!
Figure 1. A paper whirlybird.
Terms and Concepts
- How do helicopters stay up in the air?
- Will adding weights to your whirlybird make it fall faster?
- NASA. (2010, November 16). What Is a Helicopter?. Retrieved June 26, 2015.
- Rader, A. (n.d.). Forces of Attraction. Retrieved June 26, 2015.
For help creating graphs, try this website:
- National Center for Education Statistics, (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved June 25, 2020.
Materials and Equipment
- Computer with access to a printer to print the whirlybird template
- Optional: If you do not have access to a printer, you can use a ruler and a piece of paper to draw your own whirlybird based on the online template
- Printer paper
- Paper clips (at least 3)
- High place from which to drop the whirlybirds. For example, you could get an adult to stand on a chair or a ladder. If possible, you can drop the whirlybirds from a second floor window or balcony (on a calm day without too much wind), but only do this with adult supervision.
- Lab notebook
- Download the whirlybird template.
- Print out the whirlybird template on a piece of printer paper. If you do not have access to a printer, use a pencil and ruler to draw the template outline on a blank piece of paper. Dimensions are given in the template file.
- Follow the instructions on the template to cut out and fold your whirlybird. The finished whirlybird should look like the one from Figure 1 in the Introduction.
- Draw a table like Table 1 in your lab notebook so you can use it to record your data.
|Fall Time (seconds)|
|# of Paper Clips||Trial 1||Trial 2||Trial 3||Average|
- Get your stopwatch and volunteer helper ready.
- One person should be in charge of dropping the whirlybird, and the other person should use the stopwatch. You will need to start the stopwatch as soon as the whirlybird is dropped, and stop it as soon as it hits the ground.
- You should drop the whirlybird from a high place. If possible, drop it from a second story window or balcony (but not on a windy day), or have an adult stand on a chair or ladder. Make sure you drop the whirlybird from the exact same height each time.
- Drop the whirlybird and use the stopwatch to time how long it takes to hit the ground. Record this value in Table 1, in the box for "Trial 1" next to "0" paper clips.
- Repeat step 6 two more times for your second and third trials. Record these values in your data table.
- Now, add a paper clip to the bottom of your whirlybird, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. A paper clip attached to the bottom of the whirlybird to add weight.
- Repeat steps 6–7 with one paper clip. Remember to record your results in your data table, in the row for "1" paper clip.
- Repeat steps 6–7 for two, three, and four paper clips. Make sure you record all of your results in the correct row in your data table. You should have three trials for each number of paper clips.
- Ask an adult to help you calculate the average fall time for each number of paper clips. Record this value in the "Average" column in your data table.
- If you want to calculate the average yourself, you need to add up the values for each trial and then divide by three. For example, if your fall times for 0 paperclips were 6.0, 5.5, and 5.9 seconds, the average would be (6.0 + 5.5 + 5.9) ÷ 3 = 5.8 seconds.
- Make a line graph with the number of paper clips on the x-axis (horizontal line) and the fall time in seconds on the y-axis (vertical line). Ask an adult or use the Create a Graph website if you need help making a graph.
- Analyze your results. Did the whirlybird fall faster, slower, or stay the same as you added more paper clips? Is this what you thought would happen?
Ask an Expert
- Look up aerodynamic terms like angle of attack, aspect ratio, and chord length. What happens if you change these properties on the whirlybird design? Do an experiment where you change one of these variables and measure how it affects the fall time.
- What happens if you compare whirlybirds made from different types of paper, such as thin notebook paper versus thicker cardstock?
- Try an engineering project where you design your own whirlybird, with the goal of making a whirlybird that falls as slowly as possible. Think about it like you are designing a tree seed—you want it to stay in the air as long as possible so it can be carried farther away by the wind. Look online for design ideas from tree seeds that have "wings" (search for "winged seed" or "autorotating seed").
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:
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