Unit Up, Up and Away!
- Airplanes

Two photographs of airplanes: Charles Lindbergh's first airplane in flight, circa 1927. A modern-day Boeing 747.
Students investigate airplanes and the science behind their movement
Copyright © Library of Congress; NASA Quest http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/jazz/jb_jazz_lindbergh_2_e.html http://quest.nasa.gov/aero/background/


The airplanes unit begins with a lesson on how airplanes create lift, which involves a discussion of air pressure and how wings use Bernoulli's principle to change air pressure. Next, students explore the other three forces acting on airplanes—thrust, weight and drag. Following these lessons, students learn how airplanes are controlled and use paper airplanes to demonstrate these principles. The final lessons addresses societal and technological impacts that airplanes have had on our world. Students learn about different kinds of airplanes and then design and build their own balsa wood airplanes based on what they have learned.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

In designing airplanes, trains, cars, rockets and bicycles—nearly everything that moves through the air—engineers must understand Bernoulli's principle. The forces caused by moving air enable airplanes to fly and trains to slow. Engineers take advantage of the nature of air pressure so their designs of these and many other applications, function correctly, efficiently and safely. Engineers manipulate air pressure to create lift; they design wings so that the air moves faster over the top than under them, causing aircraft to lift during takeoff and during flight.

Weight is another important aspect of aircraft design that engineers take into consideration. Every additional part or piece on an airplane adds weight that makes it harder for it to overcome the force of gravity. So, when engineers design airplanes, they minimize weight when choosing materials and parts, while still assuring strength and safety. Engineers also design systems that create an action called thrust (utilizing Newton's third law of motion). To create thrust, engineers may use propellers, jets or rockets; the heavier the airplane, the more thrust required to move it.

When designing airplanes, engineers also keep in mind the force of drag and the principle of energy conservation. Since drag slows down airplanes and makes them less efficient, the goal is to design planes that reduce drag. The process of iterative design helps engineers learn from the mistakes of previous designs. Engineers often build small-scale aircraft models to test how they fly, avoiding the expense of testing at full-size, and they experiment with many different designs to find the best one. Engineers also use computer models to test aspects of their designs before they build the real thing; this is less expensive, easier and quicker since they can learn from the mistakes on the small-size, inexpensive models.

Engineers take into consideration the purpose of the airplane when they design it. Over the years, engineers have advanced the design of airplanes so they are more sophisticated and specialized. Engineers also design aircraft support systems and structures, such as runways, airports and support vehicles.

When designing new airplanes, engineers follow the steps of the engineering design process, and use invention techniques such as brainstorming, to come up with new ideas. Since engineers almost always work in teams, the ability to work together to come up with ideas and solutions is important. Engineers share their thoughts and build upon each others' ideas to come up with creative design solutions.

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.

See individual lessons and activities for standards alignment.


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Unit Schedule

The following schedule provides a suggested order of the lessons and activities. However, you may choose to only teach some of the activities – as your time and priorities permit.

More Curriculum Like This

Upper Elementary Lesson
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Upper Elementary Lesson
May the Force Be with You: Lift

Students revisit Bernoulli's principle (presented in lesson 1 of the Airplanes unit) and learn how engineers use this principle to design airplane wings. Airplane wings create lift by changing the pressure of the air around them. This is the first of four lessons exploring the four key forces in fli...

Middle School Lesson
May the Force Be with You: Thrust

Students study how propellers and jet turbines generate thrust. This lesson focuses on Isaac Newton's third law of motion for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Middle School Lesson
Can You Take the Pressure?

Students are introduced to the concept of air pressure. They explore how air pressure creates force on an object. They study the relationship between air pressure and the velocity of moving air.


© 2009 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: April 10, 2020

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