Hands-on Activity Paper Drop Design Competition

Quick Look

Grade Level: 8 (7-9)

Time Required: 1 hour

Expendable Cost/Group: US $0.50

Group Size: 3

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Physical Science

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle


Using paper, paper clips and tape, student teams design flying/falling devices to stay in the air as long as possible and land as close as possible to a given target. Student teams use the steps of the engineering design process to guide them through the initial conception, evaluation, testing and re-design stages. The activity culminates with a classroom competition and scoring to evaluate how each team's design performed.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

A bull's eye target.
How close to the target can you get?
Copyright © Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Oakland, CA http://www.mtc.ca.gov/meetings/events/target.htm

Engineering Connection

Like this activity, engineers are challenged to solve problems with a design objective, requirements and constraints. They follow the steps of the engineering design process as they develop the best solution to meet the objectives for a given scenario.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Design and construct a flying device that meets specific requirements.
  • Describe the components of the engineering design process and cite specific examples of each component.
  • Describe how they evaluated design trade-offs in the creation of the device.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-ETS1-1. Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions. (Grades 6 - 8)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Define a design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process or system and includes multiple criteria and constraints, including scientific knowledge that may limit possible solutions.

Alignment agreement:

The more precisely a design task's criteria and constraints can be defined, the more likely it is that the designed solution will be successful. Specification of constraints includes consideration of scientific principles and other relevant knowledge that is likely to limit possible solutions.

Alignment agreement:

All human activity draws on natural resources and has both short and long-term consequences, positive as well as negative, for the health of people and the natural environment.

Alignment agreement:

The uses of technologies and any limitations on their use are driven by individual or societal needs, desires, and values; by the findings of scientific research; and by differences in such factors as climate, natural resources, and economic conditions.

Alignment agreement:

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-ETS1-2. Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 6 - 8)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Evaluate competing design solutions based on jointly developed and agreed-upon design criteria.

Alignment agreement:

There are systematic processes for evaluating solutions with respect to how well they meet the criteria and constraints of a problem.

Alignment agreement:

  • Solve multi-step real-life and mathematical problems posed with positive and negative rational numbers in any form (whole numbers, fractions, and decimals), using tools strategically. Apply properties of operations to calculate with numbers in any form; convert between forms as appropriate; and assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies. (Grade 7) More Details

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  • Construct and interpret scatter plots for bivariate measurement data to investigate patterns of association between two quantities. Describe patterns such as clustering, outliers, positive or negative association, linear association, and nonlinear association. (Grade 8) More Details

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  • Define appropriate quantities for the purpose of descriptive modeling. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Represent data on two quantitative variables on a scatter plot, and describe how the variables are related. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Identify the design constraints and trade-offs involved in designing a prototype (e.g., how the prototype might fail and how it might be improved) by completing a design problem and reporting results in a multimedia presentation, design portfolio or engineering notebook. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • Build a prototype that meets a STEM-based design challenge using science, engineering, and math principles that validate a solution. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

For the teacher:

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/njit_paper_activity1] to print or download.


Engineering teams develop important and creative solutions that help people. Whether it is an artificial heart, a way to provide power to a remote village, or a technology to clean up an oil spill, engineering teams apply their math and science understanding and the engineering design process to design solutions to these and other important design challenges.

Today, your team will use the same engineering design process to design flying devices (actually falling devices) to meet two criteria. First, your device must stay in the air as long as possible and a minimum of two seconds. Second, your device must land as close as possible to a given target, but no more than one meter away.

Your materials are limited to paper, adhesive tape, index card material and paper clips. Your team will have plenty of time to build and test various possible solutions. You will conduct experiments and collect data to evaluate your designs, and you will make modifications to improve your designs. Your final design will be tested and scored, and compared to the results of other engineering teams. Seventy percent of your score will be based on flying time and 30 percent of your score will be based on how close it lands to a given target.



The engineering design process serves as the framework for student teams to complete this activity. Review with students the Engineering Design Process Handout before beginning; it explains the steps of the design process and provides some examples. We recommend that you have students develop a conceptual design on paper (with sketches and dimensions, etc.) before permitting them to begin constructing their first devices. The most important aspect of this activity is the cyclical process of testing > re-design > re-testing by student teams. Provide ample time for this iterative process and require teams to record their trial data and observations throughout this process.

Hold the competition anywhere that a flying device can be dropped from at least six feet in height. For example, have the teacher drop the devices while standing on a chair in the classroom or have students drop the devices from an alcove with an opening to a lower floor. (In the latter case, increase the minimum length of time that the device must remain airborne.) Have one member of each team go to the takeoff point and drop the device over a target on the floor. Record the time from when the device is dropped until it hits the ground. Then measure the distance from the device to the target. Have each team perform two drop runs, giving them time between runs to modify their devices. Any changes must be documented by the teams. Then each team analyzes its times and distances, and the run that meets the minimum air time and maximum distance criteria are used for the competition. If more than one run meets the performance criteria, use the run with the longest time in the air.

The most common approach is for teams to drop devices directly above a target on the floor; however, teams do not have to start directly above the target. Teams may seek to increase the flying time by beginning somewhere other than directly above the target.

Before the Activity

With the Students

  1. Divide the class into teams of 3-4 students each.
  2. Read the Introduction/Motivation to the class and explain the scoring system for the final grading. See the Assessment section for the scoring system.
  3. Review the steps of the engineering design process, as provided on the handout.
  4. Explain that a report and/or presentation is required and will be graded. See the Assessment section for suggested reporting components. Advise students to be mindful of these requirements as they proceed through the design process.
  5. The process by which teams proceed from first conceptual designs (on paper) to final designs is fairly open ended. Informally monitor the groups, occasionally pointing out how their actions correspond to the engineering design process Give each group about 30 minutes to complete their first designs. (This time may be varied, depending on the length of class periods or other constraints.)
  6. Hold the first round of the competition with the teacher standing on a chair (or holding the device over an opening to a lower floor) and dropping each device, one at a time, and students recording the time it takes the device to fall and the distance of the device from the intended target.
  7. Direct student groups to meet again and make any desired modifications to their devices, and then hold a second round of the competition in the same way as the first round.
  8. Examine the times and distances for each team's runs and note which meet the minimum time and maximum distance criteria. If any team meets the criteria in both runs, select the run with the maximum time for that team. Calculate team scores as described in the Assessment section and determine the overall score for each team.
  9. Have students calculate their team's score as described in the Assessment section, using the appropriate mathematical equations. Verify each team's score by using the Competition Score Sheet, which includes functions that correspond to the scoring system described in the Assessment section.
  10. As a class, graph the different best times and best distances for each group. Discuss what aspects of the designs worked and what didn't as well as what modifications were made. Ask students if their modifications helped, and why.


Evaluate the performance of each team's flying device against the specified minimum criteria and against the performance of other teams' devices using the scoring system described below.

Grade a report (and/or oral presentation) submitted by each team. Require the report to include sketches of the originally proposed device, any modified devices, and the final design. The report must describe the steps of the engineering design process within the context of their flying device designs. Students should report on the modifications made in their designs, the rationale for their modifications, and the resulting impact of the modifications (for example, flight time, distance from target).

Scoring System

The scoring for this competition emphasizes flight time over accuracy. The length of time before reaching the ground comprises 70% of the overall score, and the distance from the target accounts for the other 30% of the score. Scores are scaled by the slowest and fastest times or closest and farthest distances. The equation for calculating the time portion of the score, a maximum of 70 points, is as follows.

The equation for calculating the time portion of the score with a maximum of 70 points.

To illustrate how this works, consider three teams with total times of 4, 8 and 11 seconds. The equation becomes:

An example of the equation for calculating the time portion of the score using the total times of 4, 8 and 11 seconds.

For the 8 second team, this score would be:

A continuation of the example in image 2, using 8 seconds as your team's time, with 4 seconds and 11 seconds as the longest and shortest times.

The longest time always earns 70 points and the shortest time receives 0 points. Other times earn varying numbers of points; the closer they are to the maximum time, the greater the number of points they earn. The distance scores are calculated in a similar manner with 30 points maximum, using the following formula.

The equation for calculating the distance portion of the score with a maximum of 30 points.

Investigating Questions

Did your device perform as you expected? What changes did you make in your design between runs, and why?

Safety Issues

Don't fall off the chair (or over the balcony!), and watch out for paper cuts.

Troubleshooting Tips

Drop the devices as far away from walls as possible. Devices that contact walls may not perform as designed.

Activity Extensions

Run the activity again, but have the distance count for 70% of the score and the time count for only 30% of the score. Compare the designs developed for the two competitions and discuss how different criteria influence the resulting design solutions.

Activity Scaling

  • For lower grades, the percentages may be difficult for students to understand. Instead, use a fixed scale. For example, the device with the longest time in the air would score 70 points, the next longest 60 points, and so on. Scale the scores for distance from the target in a similar manner.
  • For upper grades, tell students to try to anticipate potential changes in conditions when they design their devices. After students have completed their designs but before they drop them, a simple fan can be positioned to blow across the drop zone. Other "unknowns" are possible.


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More Curriculum Like This

Upper Elementary Lesson
Time for Design

Students are introduced to the engineering design process, focusing on the concept of brainstorming design alternatives. They learn that engineering is about designing creative ways to improve existing artifacts, technologies or processes, or developing new inventions that benefit society.


Carpinelli, J., M. Feknous and M. Sosnowski. FED 101 – Freshman Engineering Design, Electrical and Computer Engineering Module, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, NJ, 2004-2007.


© 2014 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2006 New Jersey Institute of Technology


John Carpinelli; Howard Kimmel; Ronald Rockland

Supporting Program

Center for Pre-College Programs, New Jersey Institute of Technology


The authors thank Professor Stephen Tricamo, who developed the original version of the paper drop competition, for his advice in the preparation of this curricular activity.

Partial funding for the initial development of this exercise was provided by the National Science Foundation through the Gateway Engineering Education Coalition, grant nos. EEC 9109794 and EEC 9727413. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Last modified: July 27, 2020

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