Utilization Strategies

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by Karen Byers


TIME ALLOTMENT:One 1 hour lesson and 1 field trip

SUBJECT MATTER: Physical Science; Flight

Flying a glider is probably the closest thing any human will come to feeling like a bird. Powered only by gravity and air currents, these gliders move silently through the sky staying aloft by balancing the forces of gravity, lift, drag, and thrust. These are the four major forces that affect the glider’s flight. Students will view a Newton’s Apple show that explores glider mechanics, learn about the four forces, build and fly a glider to specific guidelines, adjust the glider for greater accuracy and distance using their knowledge of the four forces, and assess their performance. They will take a field trip to a local wind tunnel where they might be able to fly their gliders. They will write a summary of the day’s trip and the information they learned.


Students will:

  • Understand the meaning of the four forces of flight
  • Experiment, observe, record an investigation
  • Follow verbal and visual directions to create a paper glider that will fly at least ten feet in a straight line.
  • Apply basic understanding of aerodynamics to fine-tune a glider to fly straight.
  • Identify the variables and constants in an experimental situation.
  • Assess their work using a scoring guide.


From the National Science Education Standards, Content Standards: K-4

  • CONTENT STANDARD A, Science as Inquiry As a result of activities in grades K-4, all students should develop Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry Understanding about scientific inquiry
  • CONTENT STANDARD B, Physical Science As a result of the activities in grades K-4, all students should develop an understanding of Position and motion of objects
  • CONTENT STANDARD E, Science and Technology As a result of activities in grades K-4, all students should develop Abilities of technological design Understanding about science and technology


Preview the video, know where your pause points are located. Know how to make the glider.

Copy the FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION page (Glider Worksheet) , the copy of the glider design, the distance investigation worksheet sand the 4 forces diagram.

Make an overhead of the vocabulary that you will use as you discuss the terms and one of a diagram of the 4 forces acting on a glider.


Step 1: To introduce the topic, read Jack Prelutsky’s poem, “ I am Flying!” Ask if they can predict what the lesson will be about. Discuss the answers. Ask, “Can you see the air or the wind? How do you know it’s there?” Discuss.

Ask how students think a bird flies and how the wings help. Students will write their ideas on the glider worksheet then they will discuss them. Explain the purpose for the lesson, “Today we are going to learn about gliders and flight mechanics. We’ll watch a Newton’s Apple show about gliders.”

Ask what they know about gliders or if anyone has had any experience with them? Gliders are the perfect tools to study flight mechanics because they have no engines.

Ask what characteristics they think might affect glider flight? Let them roll a piece of paper into a ball and Let it drop and watch how it falls. Smooth the paper out and watch how it falls.

Ask the following questions: Based on your observations: Why did the flat paper float? Does the weight of the paper have any effect on whether the paper falls or floats? How about surface area? Explain surface area. They will answer these questions on the glider worksheet. Explain that the greater the amount of air hitting the bottom of the paper, the more "lift" the air can give it. The wings of birds are similar to those of gliders. Not only do they have a large surface area, but they also have a special shape that helps keep them afloat.

Step 2: Tell your students that at the end of this lesson they will become design engineers for their own gliders. They will explore and perhaps adjust a few properties that must be considered to make the perfect glider.

Step 3: Preview the rest of the glider worksheet so the students will know what to look for as they watch the video.



PBS Newton’s Apple #1506, Gliders PBS - Scientific American Frontiers Flying Free.
This video shows more examples of glider flight through the eyes of Paul MacCready. He is an aviation engineer who has looked to birds, bats, and bugs for inspiration. This video shows the scientist using inspiration and experimentation in his work.

Fantastic Paper Flying Machines, by E. Richard Churchill, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York. 1994.

The Secrets of Animal Flight, by Nic Bishop, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. 1997.


A site that explores how different insects fly. http://hannover.park.org/Canada

This site has many designs and instructions for paper planes with downloadable templates.

Flights of Inspiration – First Flight. A guide to the Wright Brothers’ first flight.


Step 1: Have the class preview the glider worksheet and explain that you will pause the video in several places in order for them to complete their worksheet. This sheet and your pauses will be their FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION. The video is 9 minutes long.

START the video at the beginning of Newton’s Apple Glider show #1506. PAUSE shortly after the introduction and the questions, “How can a glider fly?” and “What will it take to make the perfect glider? Discuss and predict the possibilities. PLAY until you see the winner of the kids’ contest. PAUSE Discuss the four forces and answer the worksheet questions together. PLAY until after the words “A glider uses only gravity and moving to power flight. PAUSE Define drag on the worksheet. Answer the next questions. PLAY until the discussion of the wing shape is complete. PAUSE Check for comprehension. Explain how the shape of the wing affects the force “lift”. (It has a flat bottom and a large curve on the front. As air moves over the top it picks up speed and makes a lower pressure behind. This change in air pressure makes lift.) PLAY until the two men climb into the glider. STOP

Review the two things that they have seen that affect a glider’s flight. (wing shape and glider weight) PLAY through the discussion about thermal updrafts. STOP Add the definition about thermal updrafts to the worksheet. Point out that you often see birds such as hawks, eagles and crows circling over a thermal updraft to gain altitude without using any energy.

Step 2: Complete the glider worksheet. Vocabulary definitions:

  • Flight Mechanics - mechanics is the branch of physics that studies the actions of forces on things. Flight mechanics is the study of the action of forces on flight.
  • Lift – the force that keeps the glider in the air. It is created by changing air pressure.
  • Thrust - the force that overcomes drag and gravity. A plane’s thrust comes from its engine. Your paper glider’s thrust will come from muscular energy.
  • Drag – or air resistance. It slows down a glider. As the glider moves through the air is produces friction. The glider must move the air out of the way. (You can feel friction when you rub your hands together.) Streamlining the body can reduce drag.
  • Gravity – is the force that is the opposite of lift.
    Thermal updraft – air moving upward because the warm ground below heats it.
  • Angle of attack - the orientation of the wing as it faces into the wind. Increasing the angle of attack means increasing the amount of air hitting directly on the bottom, which gives the wing more lift

Step 3: Complete the 4 forces diagram.



Step 1:
The task: To build and fly a glider. Discuss why the importance and difference between variables and constants in an experimental design. Just one variable should be changes and tested in each experiment. You will, therefore be sure that the changes you observe are solely the result one variable. Read the directions on the distance investigation record sheets (See materials list). Students will follow directions to create a paper glider as similar as possible to the teacher’s example. The best results will be achieved in a large, open, indoor area like a gym or a cafeteria. Place pieces of tape at ˝ meter intervals to help measure the distances. They will complete the distance investigation record sheet.

Step 2: Assessment: Show the students the scoring guide that they will use to assess their performance. Students will evaluate their own glider by using the scoring guideline.

Step 3: Display the gliders.

Step 4: Arrange a field trip to a wind tunnel. (check your local airport). Ask if the students may fly their gliders in the tunnel. Have the students write a summary of the events of the day.


Make different gliders, change variables in the same one or continue the investigation in other ways.

Life science:
Explore the insect flight website. Compare and contrast how an insect flies.

Career Exploration:
Invite design, mechanical, or aviation engineer guest speakers.

For additional lesson plans and ideas relating to this topic and many others try TeacherSource at PBS Online! You will find activities, lesson plans, teacher guides and links to other great educational web sites! Search the database by keyword, grade level or subject area! Mathline and Scienceline are also great resources for teachers seeking teaching tips, lesson plans, assessment methods, professional development, and much more!

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