Saturday, February 2, 2019

Paper Airplanes and STEM: Getting Started

 Looking for a fun lesson set that incorporates STEM, writing, reading, and data collection? Try a paper airplane challenge! I'm on my third iteration of this project, and each time it just gets better and better. It's a perfect way to get rid of the winter blues and do something fun and filled with learning.

The challenge

     This year, I set up the challenge like this: Aeronautics216 is looking for a paper gliders that can travel 15 meters indoors AND outdoors. Teams are asked to submit three airplanes for testing.
     ...that's it. I don't even set up a huge competition or offer a prize, because the actual activity is so engaging and awesome that it doesn't need anything else to prop it up.

Groups and Budget

     I used a Google form to get input from students as I set up the groups, assigning students to be lead engineer, graphic designer, writer, accountant, and materials manager. Groups of 4 and 5 work best, especially at a time of year when absences are frequent. If two people are missing from a group of 5 the remaining stude
nts can get on with the work. Two missing from a group of 3 leaves a pretty lonely student!
    In my first two attempts at this project, I wanted groups to have plenty of money. This time, their margins are pretty slim. I also used actual bills this time instead of just paper accounts by printing out $100 and $500 bills from Classroom Economy.
     Students may use as much recycled paper as they want for prototypes, but they must purchase the paper for submission planes at the price of $500/sheet. They also have to pay for extra testing sessions, marker rental, storage, and so forth. You can find the complete budget here.
     Most students don't realize at first just how far 15 meters is. They read it as "15 feet" and it only slowly dawns on them that the task is a lot harder than they thought.

Flight Rules

     An important rule that keeps this from devolving into chaos: Planes can't be tested at school until the official testing day.
     I had to fine groups $200 for breaking this rule on the first day, and it was remarkably effective. Since that initial problem, I've had no issues.
     Kids ask, "Can we take them home and test them there?" What they're really asking, of course, is "Can I do extra homework?" But I don't tell them this, and I say reluctantly that sure, if their parents are okay with it, they can make and test planes at home.

Working in groups

     In the first two sessions, students work pretty intensively on creating group names, logos, and airplane prototypes. Everyone knows how to build the standard airplane, but those are unlikely to fly 15 meters. So students use the sets of directions that I have available to try to build other versions.
     I make the video directions more costly than the printed directions because I want students to feel that struggle of reading procedural text. Airplane directions are a great equalizer, because some students who are great readers have trouble with the folding, while other students who may struggle with reading find the layout and structure of airplane directions to be a piece of cake.
     You can find plenty of paper airplane directions online, although the best source that we've found is the Klutz Paper Airplane Book.
     When there are issues in groups, I offer my (paid) services as mediator. I also give ratings sheets so that group members may rate each other on cooperation and responsibility. Once this happens, groups tend to pull together. (I admit that dealing with the inner workings of groups is my least favorite part of this activity, and that I treat it as my own area for personal growth!)

Initial testing

     Before the first testing session, groups need to make their own data collection sheets. Most of my students haven't made tables before, so I showed them this video from GCF LearnFree about creating tables in Google Docs. (Why tables instead of spreadsheets? Students are handwriting information into printed sheets, so I thought the table would give them more options.)
     I had two students who were finished with other tasks set up our testing zone in the hallway by marking out meters with masking tape. Two groups tested at a time, following a strict protocol that meant that the hallway was clear before airplanes flew. Groups had 6 minutes for testing, which seems like a short time but was adequate if they got straight to work and didn't play around.
     I recommended that groups have at least 5 planes for testing, but of course some groups did not. That's part of the process! Most of the planes went only 5-6 meters. The best performing plane went 13 meters.
     Looks like the groups will have to do some rethinking when we return to school next week! I'm hoping that they think to ask the group with the farthest flying airplane which model they used (the Hammer) and build more prototypes along those lines.

Looking forward

     In the week to come, I'll collect the data from initial testing so that we can practice finding landmarks of data like mean, median, range, and mode. This will help students to contextualize their results. Students will be busy building for their second round of testing!

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