MnSTEP Teaching Activity Collection > MnSTEP Activities > Investigating Flight with Paper Airplanes

Investigating Flight with Paper Airplanes

Ellen Gevers
Lincoln Elementary
White Bear Lake MN


Students will experiment with different styles of paper airplanes, create questions to test and design experiments that will allow them to gather data related to their question. They will record their data, using graphs where appropriate, and present their findings to the class using their evidence to support their thinking.

Learning Goals

Students will identify a question related to flight that could be tested with paper airplanes. They will discuss the variables that could affect the plane's flight and will choose one variable to test that they can measure. They will decide how to design an experiment to test their idea, and determine what tools to use for measurement. Next they will perform trials with each design change, record their measurements for each trial, find the average measurement and graph their data. Finally, the students will present their finding to their classmates.

Context for Use

Grades 4-5 Students work in groups of 4. This lesson will take two-three teaching sessions, first designing an experiment, then performing the trials and reporting to classmates. You will need a large open area for flight trials such as a hallway or gym. Outdoors could be OK too but students should consider other variables that may impact their findings.

Subject: Physics
Resource Type: Activities:Field Activity, Classroom Activity
Special Interest: Quantitative, Field-Based Teaching and Learning
Grade Level: Intermediate (3-5)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Enhancing your Teaching:Teaching in the Field

Description and Teaching Materials

Materials: The teacher should have a model of a simple, basic airplane design that all students can use to begin their inquiry. The White Wing Kits are on the market from Eddie Bauer and there are several books on paper airplanes. The school library/media center should be able to provide references. There are also several good web-sites showing how to fold paper airplanes if you have a way to project them for all students to watch.
You also need a supply of different sizes and weights of paper, paper clips or other small objects to add for weight distribution, and assorted items that students may request for their experiments.
You may provide a data collection sheet, or allow students to determine how to record their data.

Day One:
Introduction: Bring in your prepared paper airplane and toss it across the room. Ask students to offer ideas about what makes it fly and what could cause it to fly in a different way.
Introduce the idea of variable and constant if students do not know what they are. Guide discussion so students understand that there are many variables that could affect the plane's flight.

Objective: Students will work with team mates to choose a question about the flight of the paper airplane that they can test.

Break students into work groups and have them consider a variable to test. If they need help tell them to consider "How does ______________CHANGE (this is the variable) the way the plane flies?" or "How can we make the plane fly____________(longer, loopier, faster....)? We will CHANGE (this is your variable)_________________." (Remember to change only ONE thing for each trial!) The group needs to determine how they will test their question and what tools they will need for measuring the data they want to collect. They will need to decide who will launch the plane, who will measure and who will record data. These roles can rotate for each trial if students wish. Make sure students write out their plan so there is a record of what they are planning to do and who will do what.

When the plan is complete, students may begin creating whatever is needed to test their question such as making different airplane models. Make sure they understand WHY only ONE variable can change and all other things must stay constant.

Day Two:

Students will conduct their experiments and gather data. They should conduct several trials (3 or 5) with each design change. (Why?) Record all measurements and find the average for each type of design change. Compare the data they have gathered and make a graph showing their findings. Then consider who and how they will present to the class. Their oral presentation should be based on the statement "We claim_________ and this is the evidence we found to support it__________. The team should be prepared to show their graphs and answer questions.

As closure, discuss why students think there are so many different paper airplane designs. (It depends what the flier is interested in: speed, durability, looping, turning, long flights, etc.)

Teaching Notes and Tips

If students have not done any gathering or recording of data such as this it would be a good idea to discuss with them how to do so. Be sure to stress the importance of accurate measurement and recording of their data.
In the past we have done the paper airplane experiment with more structure. Students were told we were looking for ways to make a plane that would fly the farthest. While many students may choose this as their experiment, I am expecting that others will be interested in what makes a plane loop, turn, dive, or move in some other way. Hopefully we will get a bigger picture of variables that affect flight with more choice about what to test.


Students will turn in the plan they made which includes their question, the data they have gathered including a graph, and their conclusions. Consider these questions when assessing their work: Did the experiment test their question? Is their data accurate? Does the graph and data support their conclusion? Did they test one variable only? Students could also be assessed on their oral presentation.

Standards - generate a scientific question and plan an investigation; - Identify and collect relevant evidence

References and Resources