Grade Range
6th-8th
Group Size
2-4 students
Active Time
110 minutes
Total Time
110 minutes
Area of Science
Space Exploration
Key Concepts
Gravity, engineering process
Learning Objectives
  • Understand the iterative nature of engineering design.
  • Give examples to illustrate that gravitational interactions are attractive and depend on the masses of the interacting objects.
  • Give examples to illustrate that gravitational interactions are only noticeable when the mass of at least one of the interacting objects is large.
  • Explain the descent of a paper helicopter in terms of gravity and lift.
Credits
Sabine De Brabandere, PhD, Science Buddies

Overview

Space exploration poses many challenges. In this lesson, students will explore how flying a helicopter on Mars is different from flying a helicopter on Earth due to the difference in the helicopter's weight on Mars and the thin Martian atmosphere. Students will follow the engineering design process to design and build paper helicopters that might be able to fly on Mars. Before testing their different helicopter designs, students will revisit the concept of gravity, and apply their knowledge to the challenge at hand.

Remote learning adaptation: This lesson plan can be conducted remotely. Students can work independently on the Explore section of the lesson plan using the Student Worksheet as a guide and the video as an introduction. The Engage and Reflect sections can either be dropped entirely, done in writing remotely, or be conducted over a video chat.

NGSS Alignment

This lesson helps students prepare for these Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations:
  • MS-PS2-4. Construct and present arguments using evidence to support the claim that gravitational interactions are attractive and depend on the masses of interacting objects.
  • MS-ETS1-4. Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.
This lesson focuses on these aspects of NGSS Three Dimensional Learning:

Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions. Undertake a design project, engaging in the design cycle, to construct and/or implement a solution that meets specific design criteria and constraints.

Optimize performance of a design by prioritizing criteria, making tradeoffs, testing, revising, and re-testing.

Analyzing and Interpreting Data. Analyze and interpret data to determine similarities and difference in findings.

Engage in Argument from Evidence. Evaluate competing design solutions based on jointly developed and agreed upon design criteria.
PS2.B: Types of Interactions. Gravitational forces are always attractive. There is a gravitational force between any two masses, but it is very small except when one or both of the objects have large mass—e.g., Earth and the sun.

ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solution. Solution needs to be tested, and then modified on the basis of the test results, in order to improve it

ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution. Although one design may perform the best across all tests, identifying the characteristics of the design that performed the best in each test provide useful information for the redesign process—that is, some of those characteristics may be incorporated into the new design.

The iterative process of testing the most promising solutions are modifying what is proposed on the basis of the test results leads to greater refinement and ultimately to an optimal solution.
Systems and System Models. Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes and outputs—and energy and matter flows within systems.

Influence of Science, Engineering, and Technology on Society and the Natural World. The uses of technologies and limitations on their use are driven by individual or societal needs, desires, and values; by the findings of scientific research; and by differences in such factors as climate, natural resources, and economic conditions.

Materials


Materials needed to do the paper helicopter engineering lesson

For each group of 2–4 students:

  • Scissors
  • Ruler
  • Pencil or pen
  • A printout of the Paper Helicopter Template. You can also project the template on a whiteboard and ask students to draw their own paper helicopter template based on the one shown on the whiteboard.

Groups should have access to the following shared materials:

  • Assortment of paper, e.g. tissue paper, printer paper, notebook paper, construction paper, cardstock, cardboard
  • Paperclips
  • A safe, high place from which to drop the paper helicopters. For example, you could have the students stand on a chair or choose a balcony with a safe railing.
  • Optional: A scale to determine the mass of their models

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Grade Range
6th-8th
Group Size
2-4 students
Active Time
110 minutes
Total Time
110 minutes
Area of Science
Space Exploration
Key Concepts
Gravity, engineering process
Credits
Sabine De Brabandere, PhD, Science Buddies
Learning Objectives
  • Understand the iterative nature of engineering design.
  • Give examples to illustrate that gravitational interactions are attractive and depend on the masses of the interacting objects.
  • Give examples to illustrate that gravitational interactions are only noticeable when the mass of at least one of the interacting objects is large.
  • Explain the descent of a paper helicopter in terms of gravity and lift.
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