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Aerodynamics: The Wright way

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By Christina Bakerwriter, teacher and educational journalist

Science: Use the story of flight to help children’s scientific skills really take off


The Wright brothers inspired modern-day aerodynamics

Long before the legend of Icarus, humans watched birds in flight and dreamed of sharing the same power. By the time Wilbur and Orville Wright emerged onto the scene, this dream had built up to a frenzied obsession. The world eagerly awaited the invention of the aeroplane, however, existing models could do little more than hop briefly off the ground. The most valuable piece of the puzzle, a means of controlling the aircraft, still eluded inventors.

In childhood, the Wright brothers were naturally curious and fortunate enough to have a family that nurtured this trait. When their father presented them with a working toy helicopter, their undying fascination with flight was sparked. They played with the beloved contraption endlessly and, when it broke, they built their own.

As adults, Wilbur and Orville understood the importance of research and investigation. They scrutinised the existing information about aviation, learning from others’ mistakes and successes. They observed the way birds tilt their heads and lean to change direction. Through rigorous box-kite flying trials, they tested the way the movement of different designs could be controlled.

The Wright brothers’ journey to flying success was filled with many ups and downs. To continue reading their amazing story, access the activity sheets ‘Aerodynamics: the Wright way’ to print off and share with your class.

1. Science friction

The topic of friction is tremendous fun and ideal for showing how scientific knowledge can be applied to improve the way we live.

  • Introduce the topic of air resistance by standing on a chair and dropping different objects to the floor, two at a time (à la_ Galileo’s legendary ‘free falling objects’ experiment from the Leaning Tower of Pisa).
  • Encourage children to speculate as to the factors affecting the rate of fall. Allow children to carry out similar experiments (such as, dropping balls of different weights).
  • Discuss the fact that air resistance, not weight, determines how long objects take to reach the ground. If appropriate, introduce the applications of this knowledge (boat sails, parachutes, streamlining for speed).

2. The great outdoors

Go outside and use the air around you for some hands-on learning.

  • Allow the children to run unhindered and then with an open umbrella.
  • Alternatively, ask the class to raise and lower a parachute to feel the ‘drag’ of resisting air particles.
  • If space allows, introduce the Wright brothers’ experiments with kite flying.
  • Discuss kite safety and then allow the children to try flying different types of kites, studying the way they move and observing how they use lift and air resistance to stay aloft.

3. Design competitions

Consolidate children’s knowledge of air resistance and streamlining with a design competition.

  • In groups, set the children a challenge, such as Create a vehicle that will travel as far as possible off a tilted ramp; Create a paper helicopter or parachute that will take the longest time to reach the ground (see the third of the ‘Aerodynamics: The Wright way’ activity sheets, ‘The great paper helicopter challenge’) or design a paper aeroplane that will travel the furthest.
  • Give children a range of materials with which to work (paperclips, cardboard, masking tape, paper). Allow them time to experiment with different ideas before settling on a final design.
  • Discuss ways of making the test fair (dropping from the same height, for example).
  • Carry out the test to find a winner and discuss reasons why the design was successful (produced the most/least air resistance, for example).

4. Research project

Promote and develop the children’s investigative skills with a group project inspired by the Wright brothers.

  • Set the children a question for investigation, such as How do planes fly? Discuss children’s ideas as a class. Write key words on the board: lift, drag and thrust.
  • The children could use the First Flight website (see ‘ICT links’) for their research.
  • More able children may wish to research the development of aviation after the Wright brothers’ contribution in 1903.

ICT links



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