Orville and Wilbur Wright’s path to flight more than 100 years ago was not without challenges.
Creeds Elementary School fifth-graders can relate.
“This stapler is out of staples,” said Ashlyn Freeman trying to bind together two triangular pieces of aluminum foil.
Minor mechanical difficulties.
“It kind of looks weird, but I think it will work,” said Freeman with cautious optimism.
She thought heavier paper would improve the flight, building a similar model with construction paper. The next test run still left room for improvement.
“I think I need to add this,” Freeman said grabbing a pipe cleaner from the center of her group’s table. “It needs to be heavier. I need to create drag,” she explained as she looped and pinched the pipe cleaner under the center of the wings.
Staples, tinfoil, construction paper and pipe cleaners may not have been on the Wright brothers’ supply list; however, the problem-solving and refining demonstrated by the fifth-graders were likely similar to the famous siblings.
They visited the Military Aviation Museum three miles from their school to view the design of various planes and discuss with pilots and engineers how certain variables impact flight.
“We showed them the Wright flyer model, the yellow Stearman and the P-51 Mustang,” said Joe Badali, museum volunteer and retired school principal.
Students learned that the cloth and multiple struts on the Wright flyer’s wings made for a slower-flying plane, while the P-51 flew up to 400 miles per hour in World War II. “It has a clean, high performance metal design without sticks or rags,” Badali said of the fighter plane in museum’s hanger.
Using only materials selected in advance by their teachers, Creeds students applied lessons learned to design and construct planes to fly the following day at the aviation museum.
“Let’s use popsicle sticks to create drag and slow it down,” advised another student to her partners.
“The wings need to be slanted to go farther,” determined one student after a test flight in the hallway.
“I don’t think we’re going to need this after all,” said a student holding a hole puncher she initially thought would be valuable.
Critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving were in the air.
“It was so fascinating to see the students come up with a design, test it, get feedback and refine multiple times before finally settling on their designs,” said principal Casey Conger.
Students were quick to praise museum volunteers who came to Creeds to assist them during the construction phase.
“The pilots were so helpful and gave us good ideas,” said Francesa Ashburn. “They helped us when we were confused, but they didn’t just give us the answers. We had to take the advice and figure it out for ourselves.”
Sam Dockieweicz had a similar experience. “The pilots taught me that when I was testing my design I should only change one thing at a time. I had added paper clips and made the wings longer, but then when I tested it, I wasn’t sure which one made the difference,” he said. “When I changed one thing at a time I could then see which variable made the difference and make the necessary changes.”
When flight day arrived, museum volunteers set up a runway marked by orange cones 10 feet apart inside the Navy hanger. Team by team, students launched their three designs from the second-floor mezzanine while their classmates recorded data related to each flight.
Watch fifth-grader Anna Wells launch her design to fly the farthest:
Not all test flights went as planned. When one plane nosedived and made a sharp left turn right into the foot of a staff member, Conger turned the humorous moment into a teachable one.
“What did we learn?” Conger asked the hanger full of students. “That an object in motion,” she began, “remains in motion until acted upon by an unbalanced force,” responded the fifth-graders in unison much to their principal’s delight.
Before his team’s visit to the launching area, Austin Jones was confident his plane, designed to fly the farthest, would land well beyond the last orange cone on the runway.
After it fell well short, he assessed the situation and noted, “Next time, I would probably work on my throw more because I was throwing the plane down. I would also fold back the wings to make it glide more smoothly.”
His peers had some reflections as well, which gifted resource teacher Barbara Messina asked for in a debriefing session once all aircraft had landed. She wanted to know how students would refine their designs as well as the activity.
The introduction of a new variable, a higher launching pad, was noted by several students as an unexpected twist. Their planes flew far, fast and slow when tested in the school hallway, but many took different flight paths when pitched from the second floor of the hanger. Messina asked for ideas on how to better test their planes at school.
Practice from the second floor balcony at Creeds. Stand on chorus risers in the cafeteria to add height.
Despite the challenges, everyone agreed that the design challenge should be continued with next year’s fifth-graders.
“I learned so much,” said Meadow Cortazzo.
“It was really fun. I think we learn more when it is hands on,” said Charlie Savino
“I think it was more challenging than we thought,” Sam Dockiewicz added. “But, I think it was really effective because we got to discover it for ourselves. I actually think I learned more from this design challenge then just listening to it being taught.”
“One last entry!” announced Conger and directed everyone’s attention to the hanger mezzanine where fifth-grade teacher David Wiggins, dressed as Clark Kent/Superman on the day before Halloween, launched his own plane to try to outdo his students. Watch to see if he did.