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Defining an Engineering Design Problem with Paper Airplanes

Grade Range
3rd-5th
Group Size
3-4 students
Active Time
1 hour
Total Time
1 hour
Area of Science
Mechanical Engineering
Key Concepts
Engineering design, design problem, criteria, constraints
Learning Objectives
  • Identify the criteria and constraints in a given engineering design problem.
  • Explain why it is important to specify criteria and constraints for an engineering problem.
different paper airplane designs

Overview

Are paper airplanes a nuisance in your classroom? They don't have to be! Those distractions can be a constructive learning opportunity: use them to teach your students about the engineering design process. In this fun lesson, you will be the "customer" ordering a paper airplane, and your student teams will be engineering companies that will manufacture planes. Before they start making planes, they need to define the criteria and constraints of this engineering problem.

NGSS Alignment

This lesson helps students prepare for these Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations:
  • 3-5-ETS1-1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.
This lesson focuses on these aspects of NGSS Three Dimensional Learning:

Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Asking Questions and Defining Problems. Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process, or system and includes several criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.
ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems. Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account.
Influence of Science, Engineering, and Technology on Society and the Natural World. Engineers improve existing technologies or develop new ones to increase their benefits, decrease known risks, and meet societal demands.

Credits

Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies

Materials


materials for paper airplane lesson
  • Printer paper (at least 16 sheets per team). Optionally, you can let your students use colored construction paper instead.
  • Additional, optional materials that can be useful for making paper airplanes. These materials are not required; you can decide what to use based on what you have available in your classroom.
    • Scissors
    • Rulers
    • Tape
    • Paper clips
    • Colored markers
  • Open, indoor space for throwing paper airplanes (at least the length of your classroom, with no furniture in the way). If you have students who are particularly good at making and throwing planes, you may need to move into a hallway or a large room like the gym or cafeteria.
  • Tape measure. You can decide whether to use a metric or English tape measure depending on which units for distance your students are familiar with.
  • Optional: calculator for calculating average distance

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Grade Range
3rd-5th
Group Size
3-4 students
Active Time
1 hour
Total Time
1 hour
Area of Science
Mechanical Engineering
Key Concepts
Engineering design, design problem, criteria, constraints
Learning Objectives
  • Identify the criteria and constraints in a given engineering design problem.
  • Explain why it is important to specify criteria and constraints for an engineering problem.

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