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High, high and away with parachutes STEM

When I first tried to design parachutes in the MINT class, I was amazed at how busy the students were and how much they loved it.

It could be that they stood on the table tops to launch their parachutes!

It is really an insightful challenge, and I have some tips for you on what to expect when students tackle this.

STEM Challenge- Design a parachute that safely brings its cargo to the ground. This blog post contains some variations of our project!

There are phases that we follow when designing our parachutes. Some of the problems we encountered were a surprise to me for the first time and I learned in the test class how to better prepare the next group.

  • The canopy
  • The strings
  • The freight
  • Variations

Are you ready to sail away

The canopy

My vision of a parachute would be that it is round and has strings on the edge of the circle connected to the cargo. Imagine my surprise when the students didn’t know how to start. The first thing we had to do was stop and look at some pictures of parachutes.

STEM Challenge- Design a parachute that safely brings its cargo to the ground. Start learning how to make a canopy and how to make a circle!

I really thought the students would know how to cut a circle out of the tissue paper we used. They have not! They cut triangles, rectangles and strange shapes. I also saw a lot of teams that made a rectangle and then cut a hole in it center.

So we stopped talking! I showed some pictures of different parachutes and we talked about their shapes and reasons for the canopy. When they started to understand that the size and shape of the canopy had to be designed to “catch” most of the air, we were ready to go back to work!

TIPPING: But then I discovered that cutting out a circle was something they didn’t know how to do. I helped the first class and worked on how to make circles in the following classes. We used heavy brown paper and kept folding a square in half. Then we cut a sheet over the folded paper and made some really nice circular shapes! These became tracing templates.

Don’t assume that students know how to do things like this. Yes, I helped how to do these things – but they were third graders. They had never made parachutes or circles before. It was a time to learn.

The strings

Okay, getting the canopies ready was a challenge. On to the strings.

I watched with dismay as students cut strings of different lengths and then attached them to the middle of their canopies!

You know what I had to do. I could have stopped and talked about measuring and attaching the strings. I did not do it. I let them do it their way. And when these canopies were blown up, they crashed. Then we stopped talking.

Yes, sometimes I help and sometimes I let the students learn by doing it!

STEM Challenge- Design a parachute that safely brings its cargo to the ground. Students need rulers to measure the length of the parachute cords!

We dropped out of class and I had a team demonstrating their canopy with the strings in the middle, and we all got involved in what we could see. The canopy didn’t open to catch air. It flew up. How can we fix it?

The students got back to work by attaching these cords to the edges.

TIP: If you have students who are younger than third graders, you can consider cutting their strings for them. Give them a piece of tissue paper and pre-cut cords and let them do the rest.

TIPPING: How do you attach the strings? The students wanted to make a hole in the handkerchief and tie the string to the tissue paper. That does not work. The paper tears easily. Clear tape works best!

The freight

The first year we tried parachutes, our cargo was a Lego man. Part of the challenge was to attach the Lego man to the parachute. This added some difficulty to the challenge as my rule was that a Lego man needed a harness. The students just wanted to tie the parachute cords around the man – but my rule was that they couldn’t. They made backpack straps out of pipe cleaners!

STEM Challenge- Design a parachute that safely brings its cargo to the ground. Check this blog post for more information!

The fun part was dropping the parachutes. The students stood on my table tops and opened the canopies as far as possible and then let go. Some canopies floated to the ground, others twisted and crashed. There was definitely a learning curve on how to drop it.

TIPPING: Have a time together at the end of the lesson so that each team can show their parachutes. Just know that every student wants a twist as a dropper!

Variations

We tried parachutes in many variations! My fifth graders have to design a parachute to drop an egg. Your challenge is to build the container to protect the egg.

I recently tried a fourth grade group and we built lunar lander. The idea was that a parachute had to fall on the surface of the moon and a rover of a spacecraft had to land safely. We built the Lego rovers.

STEM Challenge- Design a parachute that safely brings its cargo to the ground. The load happens to be made of Lego, so the parachute has to work!

This turned out to be quite a challenge! If this Lego spaceship fell too hard on the ground, it would break into a pile of broken bricks! Designing the best wind-catching parachute was essential.

One year in the second class we read a picture book about spiders and then built spider parachutes. This was because the spiders in the book created “balloons” from their silk to fly away from their cocoon. So we built parachutes for them.

STEM Challenge- Design a parachute that safely brings its cargo to the ground. The load is a plastic spider!

The challenge was even more fun because the students also had to do the spiders. I allowed the second graders to stand on a table to drop their parachutes, but their tables were much deeper than our primary lab.

No matter which version you choose, you can’t go wrong trying parachutes. I’ll link some parachute resources below for you!



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