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Activity: Fly a Paper Helicopter

(Activity courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago)

In this activity for grades 1 to 6, with a few simple folds, students¬† create a paper flyer that moves like the blades of a helicopter. They learn how changing the helicopter’s shape or weight affects its flight and explore how air resistance changes the way an object falls.

Learning Objectives:

Students Will Learn:

  • Air has mass and takes up space
  • Resistance – A force that prevents or slows down motion

Students Will Be Able To:

  • Describe how objects with different shapes move as they fall through the air

Illinois Learning Standards (2007)

Late Elementary
State Goal 11: 11.A.2b
State Goal 12: 12.C.2a, 12.C.2b, 12.D.2a, 12.D.2b

Middle/Junior High School
State Goal 11: 11.A.3b
State Goal 12: 12.C.3a, 12.D.3a, 12.D.3b

Background information

Air has mass and takes up space. When you drop your helicopter, the air provides resistance that slows the helicopter down. It has to push the air around it out of its way in order to move. As the helicopter falls, the resistance from the air pushes the blades up into a slanted position. In this position, the air under one blade is pushing one way and the air under the other blade is pushing the opposite way. These two forces of air push the blades around and make it spin. The faster the blades spin, the less the air can get by, and the slower the helicopter falls. By experimenting with the weight, shape, and position of the blades, you change how fast and how much air is pushed out of the way.

Materials

Procedure

Step 1

Gather your materials

Step 2
Use the helicopter template to cut out your flyer. Cut ONLY on the solid lines.

Step 3
Fold flaps A and B toward each other so they overlap.

Step 4

Fold flap C up. Hold your helicopter up high and drop it. What happens?

Step 5

Fold flaps D and E in opposite directions to form the blades. Fold D towards you and flap E away from you. Hold your helicopter up high and drop it again. What happens?

Step 6
By experimenting with the weight or shape of your helicopter, you can change how it flies. Cut out more helicopters to compare with your first helicopter. What happens when you:

  • Add a paper clip to the stem? Two paper clips?
  • Fold the stem to make it shorter?
  • Cut the blades shorter?
  • Cut jagged edges on the blades, or make the blades rounded?
  • Bend the blades the other way?

What other variations can you think of to test? Air has mass and takes up space. When you drop your helicopter, it has to push the air around it out of its way in order to move.

As the helicopter falls, the pressure of the air pushes the blades up into a slanted position. In this position, the air under one blade is pushing one way and the air under the other blade is pushing the opposite way. These two forces of air push the blades around and make it spin. The faster the blades spin, the less the air can get by, and the slower the helicopter falls.

By experimenting with the weight, shape, and position of the blades, you change how fast and how much air is pushed out of the way. In other words, you’re changing how the air resistance is hitting your helicopter. This affects how it moves.

Additional Resource: A 1991 University of Wisconsin paper on teaching engineering design with paper helicopters

2007 Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

5 Responses to “Activity: Fly a Paper Helicopter”

  1. Where can I find the template for the helicopter actvity? I could create it, but I’ll bet someone already has.
    Thanks,
    Kim

  2. There is a great paper on using paper helicopters to teach design of experiments by George Box. I am a bit biased as George Box and my father co-founded the Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

  3. Where can I find the template for the “paper helicopter.

    Thanks,

    Charlie

  4. The link should be fixed now!

  5. You should include types of paper, paper manipulations, and size.

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