Science Takes Flight With Paper Airplanes

A well-designed STEM activity helps elementary students understand the basics of physics and design thinking.

February 11, 2021
kokouu / iStock

My father, a principal and teacher for more than 30 years, saw teachable moments in everything—even in what others might call garbage. Paper airplanes, for example, might be confiscated in class but then become the centerpiece for an impromptu lunch or recess lesson on forces of flight such as drag and lift.

I’ve adopted my dad’s educational philosophy of finding teachable moments in everything—including paper airplanes. Over the years, I’ve found that activities rooted in the construction and analysis of paper airplanes work in all sorts of contexts, from STEAM fair projects to remote learning lessons on aviation.

Lesson Launch

Whenever possible, I like to have my students do independent research, which not only makes the project more student centered but also builds their research skills—including those that they will need at several points during the project. So when I start the paper airplane project, I always launch it by having my students research ticket prices for overseas flights so they have a better idea of the distance an airplane must travel and the time it must stay in the air.

Since I worked in the Middle East for years, I usually choose a destination that I am familiar with, such as Qatar—that way I can work in some world culture teaching if the moment seems right. Once students are aware of the high prices of such flights, I ask them to brainstorm why. To help them with this, I suggest finding out how many hours and miles the flight is.

Armed with some idea of the distance and time, my students usually start thinking about the large amount of fuel it takes for an overseas flight—and then they make the connection between cost and fuel, which sets them up to think critically about how to reduce both.

Introduction to Physics

Once they have the concept of fuel efficiency in mind, I ask them, “How would you build a more fuel-efficient airplane to make it more affordable for people to travel?” Usually that stumps them, so we wind up taking a planned reroute into physics.

When I ask them what makes an airplane fly, often they don’t really know, so I send them to Google to find the answer on their own. Then we regroup and discuss what they learned and diagram the four forces of flight: lift, weight, thrust, and drag.

Next, we talk about what roles these four forces play in the plane’s structure. I ask them, “How does the engine help an airplane to fly? After all, my car has an engine, why can’t it fly?”

These prompts send the students off on an additional Google search, where they discover the term lift.

Having established that a plane’s engine helps provide lift, I ask, “Can a plane fly without an engine?”

The kids don’t even try to google this one. They just make gestures of a nosedive and the sound of an explosion.

When they google “engineless flight,” they are typically amazed to learn that most modern airplanes can glide in the event of an engine failure.They quickly come to the conclusion that the farther a plane can glide, the less fuel it will use.


When we move on to the challenge, I tell them, “Use what you know about the four forces of flight to design a paper airplane that can glide a great distance. Your plane must be made out of only one piece of paper. Your plane must be folded—not glued or stapled, because that would change the drag.”

I set the parameters for the lesson: They can research paper airplane designs on their computers, and they can fold and try as many designs as they have paper for. I then tell them that they will share their designs with the class and explain why they think it worked or didn’t work.

My students are granted at least two days to work on their designs, but we often get so involved in the project that we need more time. Each day, we meet to try our planes and discuss how we can improve them. This trial-and-error process is one of the most critical parts of the lesson and the most powerful for students.

We end our project by taking our airplanes to a clear space like a school or, if they’re learning from home, a backyard or apartment hallway. The students fly their planes and measure the distance they glide. Remote learners video-record their test flights and share them with the class. I remind the students that it’s not a competition, and I encourage them to continue fine-tuning their designs and discuss ways to improve them.

Every time I do this project, some students fold a traditional paper airplane and then give up when it doesn’t fly as far as more original designs created by their classmates. They have a hard time letting go of the idea that a traditional paper airplane is the best. They often keep folding the same design over and over and becoming more and more frustrated because it won’t fly. 

I see this as one of those teachable moments in science (and in life) that can make a profound impact on a child: They realize that if they have always been told, “This is the way a thing is,” that doesn’t mean it’s the way it has to stay. It’s a way of showing them that science is more than the study of the world around us; it is an act of dreaming of the way things could be.

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  • STEM
  • Critical Thinking
  • Design Thinking
  • Science
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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