Thursday, March 15, 2012

Paper Airplane Science Experiment

When I was in elementary school, we would have a science fair every other year and all of the students would do some sort of science project. In fifth grade I simulated acid rain and in seventh grade I made recycled paper. I didn't find the acid rain experiment to be fun at all and it had been the only thing I could think of. The paper experiment was more fun because I got to make a big mess but it still didn't engage me, even though it was something I really wanted to do. So for  you parents out there trying to help your kid find something different to do for a science experiment, here's an idea: PAPER AIRPLANES.

Lots of little kids like making paper airplanes and if you think about it, it's super-simple to turn it into a science experiment and there's a a number of different approaches that you can take. The idea when doing different experiments, is that you want to identify all of the different variables and then just change ONE. In any approach, you'll form hypotheses around the same questions:
  1. Which airplane flies the farthest?
  2. Which airplane flies the straightest?
Experiment Method 1: Airplane design
Go online (or to the library) and find instructions on how to create several different designs of paper airplanes. Then construct them using the SAME size and type of paper. If you want, you could measure the wing dimensions and area and use those numbers to form your hypotheses.

Experiment Method 2: Airplane material
Pick a single airplane design and change up the type of paper used. Make sure the size of the paper doesn't change though. You could use construction paper, aluminum foil, printer paper, wrapping papper, cardstock, or whatever else you can think of. Here you'll probably want to weigh each airplane and use that for forming hypotheses.

Experiment Method 3: Airplane size
Again, pick a single airplane design but this time change up the size of the paper but use same type of paper. You may need to cut down large pieces of paper to make smaller planes. I say, find the biggest cut of paper you can find. Most schools have large rolls of paper for making big posters or bulletin boards. For each variation, make sure that the length to width proportion of the paper remains constant.

Experiment Method 4: Airplane proportions
Pick a single airplane design and type of paper. This time, vary the dimensions of the paper, while maintaining the same number of square inches. For example: (12x10) and (15x8) both have 120 square inches of area. You could also do (12x10) and (10x12) - rotating the axis of the plane. In doing this type of experiment, you should take lots of measurements in forming your hypotheses: wing area, plane length, wing width, plane height.

Conducting the experiment
Reduce the potential for errors:
  • I would make three copies of each plane to try to account for any variations there might be in the construction. Also, practice making the plane first and then make new ones for the experiment.
  • Throw and measure each plane at least five times. The more times you throw it, the more accurate your data will be, unless, of course, the plane gets really beat up from doing a nosedive into the floor. You can always disregard measurements (so you take 10 but only use the first 5 because you see that after that the data started to skew from bent noses).
Location selection:
  • You should try to find a wide open place to throw the airplanes. The school gymnasium would be a great place because it's wide open and there won't be any wind.
Location preparation:
  • Place a mark on the floor from where you will launch the planes each time (Use gaffers tape in the gymnasium so you don't gunk up the floors!). Mark out a straight line from that point. You might want to put a target on the wall or something that is in line with the starting point and straight line. When you throw the planes, aim for the target and that will help ensure that you throw consistently.
  • Again, aim for the target and make sure that your throwing arm is lined up with your target.
  • Measure the distance from the throwing point to where the plane LANDED. Have someone there to help watch in case the planes want to slide on the floor.
  • Measure the angle between the center line and where the plane lands.
One Last Idea:
You could also experiment with airplane surface friction. I don't know how you would MEASURE friction though so I'm just floating this out there for you. Using glossy inkjet photo paper, the same size paper, dimensions, and airplane design, make one plane with the glossy side out and one plane with the back side out.

Share Your Results
If you decide to try this experiment in one form or another, please share your results. I would love to hear what you discover!

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