Academic journal article Science and Children

The Paper Airplane Challenge Students Learn about Variables and Trials While Designing an Investigation

Academic journal article Science and Children

The Paper Airplane Challenge Students Learn about Variables and Trials While Designing an Investigation

Article excerpt

What's more engaging than paper airplanes? The title of our investigation alone gets my students excited! This engineering design challenge (two 90-minute lessons) introduces fifth graders to the process of designing an investigation with multiple trials and controlled variables. Students get firsthand experience examining causes and effects of different forces on the motion of objects. The investigation aligns with essential scientific practices identified by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), including asking questions; planning and carrying out investigations; using mathematical thinking; designing solutions to problems; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (NGSS Lead States 2013).

Engage (Day 1)

Before beginning the challenge, I pre-assess students by asking them to write what they already know about planes, including all forces that will affect the flight of a paper plane. Then I ask them to draw a picture of a paper plane, label its parts, and share their ideas with the class. You may also ask them to create a plane to judge how many unique designs they can come up with independently. This investigation requires the use of safety goggles while constructing and testing paper planes and when students are collecting data using metersticks.

After the pre-assessment, I assign students to teams of three or four. There should be at least one student in each group who is more familiar with paper plane construction and forces, based on the pre-assessment, so that each team has adequate peer support. As a whole group, we briefly discuss the parts of a plane (wings, nose, tail, body) and how they differ. This will assist students later when they analyze why their planes flew differently.

Students record every step of the investigation design (even when designing, building, and testing planes) on interactive notebooks, which help them monitor their own learning, develop academic language, and engage them in real-world scientific inquiry (Marcarelli 2010). I model how they should record steps on an anchor chart and provide sentence stems and visuals to support English language learners (ELLs) (Hill and Flynn 2006).

Give your students opportunities to uncover the steps to planning and carrying out an investigation on their own through inquiry (Martin 2012). Before they can begin planning an investigation, however, they will need to identify the problem they're trying to solve. Without telling them specifically that they need a problem or purpose to begin an investigation, I challenge them to design a paper airplane that will fly the farthest using only one sheet of paper. Then, pose the question: "What do scientists need before beginning an investigation?"

One student says, "They need materials!" I ask the class to go deeper: "What do they need to know before they can get their materials?"

Once students realize that scientists need to fix or know more about a problem, I ask, "What is our purpose today? What are we trying to find out?" Refer them back to the challenge if they get stuck. My students could come up with components of the problem by asking questions such as "How far can the plane fly?" Together the class constructs a cause-and-effect question (Marcarelli 2010): Does the design of a paper airplane affect how far it will travel?


I provide students a packet of different airplane designs from Aviation Explorer with instructions on building them (see Internet Resource). Students start by researching different designs and selecting ones they believe will fly the farthest. Let students name their airplanes to get them invested in their designs and to distinguish them when comparing results. They have three minutes to choose a design and complete their prediction, using a sentence stem:

Prediction: I predict that a plane designed like this ___________ (picture or description of what the plane looks like) will go the farthest. …

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