Maker Monday: Forces of Flight

During a recent Maker Monday program for ages 8-18 years, we explored the four Forces of Flight (thrust, drag, lift, weight) and made lots of machines that fly. It was a rowdy couple of hours with lots of budding engineers in one room along with balloons, paper airplanes, and hot glue. I was thankful to have two partners in crime again this week.

I’ll admit that I didn’t know a lot about the forces of flight before planning this program. I didn’t become an aeronautical engineer in the planning either. I did learn a lot though, and learned enough to inspire a large group of kids and teens to create flying machines, modify their designs to improve their flying, and have fun working in teams.

Here are some resources for learning about the forces of flight and Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion:
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s How Things Fly: Forces of Flight
Physics Classroom: Newton’s Laws of Motion
NASA LaRC Office of Education NASA Sci Files with Dr. D (another kid friendly video explaining the forces of flight from the Internet Archive, which I love)
There are also lots of good kids books about paper airplanes, motion, and rockets that discuss these concepts. I had several from our library’s collection on display in the program room.

To start things off, I showed the group this video. I did it for two reasons. First of all, the two hosts are women engineers. Not only is STEAM important for kids in general, but I think its especially valuable for girls to see women as scientists in STEAM-related programs so they know anything is possible. Secondly, the video explains the forces of flight well in a relatively short video. The kids started to get distracted part way through the video as they explained the four forces of flight, so I stopped the video and explained them in my own words. This helped reinforce the concepts and kept everyone on track. This isn’t school, so I didn’t want kids zoning out because they were getting overwhelmed. I also didn’t show the complete video because we weren’t doing the same experiment.

After the video we did our first flight test. It was a simple one. We asked the new engineers if they could predict who would be able to jump the highest. Most of the kids looked around the room and chose the tallest person, a teen. Given what we just learned about the forces of motion I asked them to look at the predicted winner again. The vote was still with him as we proceeded with the experiment.

We had kids come up to sheets of paper we hung on one of the room’s walls and we measured their heights. Then we had the kids come back up and jump as high as they could. We marked how high their head reached and compared measurements. The tallest person was not the highest flier! We talked again about the four forces and hypothesized about why a shorter person could fly the highest. Was it their thrust? Or the clothes on the tallest person creating drag?

The next experiment involved balloon rockets. This is where the program room got a little chaotic, but it was a great time to talk about Isaac Newton and his Laws of Motion. I’m pretty sure none of the kids present knew they would be learning about and understanding Newton’s Laws of Motion today, but the balloon rockets immediately demonstrated the Third Law: “ for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

The idea was to create rockets out of balloons and fly them across the room on string courses. We gave each person a balloon (we had a variety of shapes) and asked them to blow up the balloon without tying off the end. We then hung two strings from one end of the room to the other to create our courses. One end of the string was secured on a chair and the other was free so we could string the balloon and an attached straw onto the string in preparation for flying. To see the third law in action, I asked kids which direction the balloon opening should point to make the balloon fly to the other end of the string. You should have seen the lightbulbs go off! The air from inside the balloon should blow towards me, holding the string at the starting point, making the balloon fly in the opposite direction to the other end of the string. So simple.

Once the rocket was ready for launch, the designer let go of the balloon and watched it soar across the room on the string. Kids made many attempts as we tested out shapes of balloons, how much air was in the balloon, size of the straw and type of string.

balloons (various sizes and shapes)
string (various types optional)
straws (various sizes optional)
chair(s) to secure string

To calm things down a bit, we had everyone sit in small groups on the floor (we removed the large tables from the room to accommodate the large numbers of kids). Then we moved on to paper airplanes! I found three paper airplane patterns the kids could copy and build if they didn’t have a design of their own. We used the new planes to see who’s airplane could get closest to the target we created with a wire hanger pulled slightly out of shape to form a diamond. Kids took turns launching their paper crafts across the room towards the target. None of the airplanes made it into the target, but a few came close. Several kids took multiple turns and fiddled with their design to see if it could fly higher, more accurately, or further.Making Paper Airplanes

paper airplane patterns (books or see link above for printable designs)
paper (various weights and colors optional)
markers, pencils, crayons for decorating
paper clips (for weighting the nose of some designs)

Finally it was time for my favorite event, the soda bottle rocket (see full details at this link)! These are incredibly cool and don’t be scared off by the preparation or the fact that you are shooting bottles full of water into the air. Even my dad laughed on the first test run I did at home!Soda Bottle Rocket

Of course you’ll want to launch these rockets outside. I took everyone out to a grassy area alongside the library for the demo. I had everyone stay back (to be extra cautious) behind a certain line during takeoff. I brought with me a plastic soda bottle filled approximately 1/3 with water. I plugged the opening with the prepared cork (repurposed bike tire valve inserted into a drilled hole in the wine cork) and laid it on the launch pad (made from scraps of wood so no one would have to hold the bottle as it is launched and get soaked in the process).

Much of the research I did on these rockets discussed specific PSI for launch, possible bottle explosion, etc. A little common sense goes along way here. The idea is that you pump air into the bottle via the bike tire valve inserted in the cork now attached to the bottle. Pretty simple. I never had any problems and I didn’t use a bike pump with a PSI indicator. It all worked well and was a perfect finale to the program. For the last 20-25 minutes kids took bottles I collected from the recycling bin at the dump and modified them with foam wings, tails and noses to see if the designs would change how the rockets flew. We launched over 25 rockets and it was a crowd pleaser every time.

Soda Bottle Rocket ValveMaterials:
empty and clean plastic soda bottles
wine cork (natural cork, not plastic)- make sure it fits into the bottle opening snuggly without falling in
bike tire valve off an old bike tire inter tube (I got a dozen for free from a local bike shop)
foam sheets or other materials to modify rockets (I had foam on hand from another program)
stand up bike pump
scraps of wood to make rocket launch pad (no design)
hot glue

I did bring a second pump, but we didn’t end up using it. The hold up with this part of the program was the hot gluing of the added design features on to the rockets. I had the easy part as the rocket launcher. My co-leaders had to glue! Some kids did find a use for the other bike pump however. They came up with the fart launcher game. Pumping the pump while holding the end sounds, well, like someone farting I guess.Kids bike pump


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