Lesson: Take Off with Paper Airplanes

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

A drawing of a simple folded paper airplane.
Students learn about plane parts and their functions.


Students are introduced to the art of designing airplanes through paper airplane constructions. The goal is for students to learn important aircraft design considerations and how engineers must iterate their designs to achieve success. They learn about the basic parts that can be found on most airplanes, and their functions. They also learn how engineers make small-scale models to test ideas and improve early designs. This prepares students for the associated activity in which they first make and test several provided paper airplane designs, after which they design and test their own paper airplane designs.

Engineering Connection

The process of iterative design helps engineers learn from the mistakes of early designs. When designing airplanes, engineers often build small-scale model to test how they fly without building large and expensive full-size aircraft. And, they experiment with many different designs to find the one that best meets the design objectives.

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).

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Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Design at least two different paper airplanes.
  • Modify one of their designed airplanes in an attempt to improve its flight.
  • Become familiar with parts of a paper airplane and how they relate to parts on a real airplane.


How many of you have ever made a paper airplane? How many of you have tried with a friend to see whose airplane can go the farthest or the highest? Did you know that engineers make small-scale models of things like airplanes to test their ideas in a laboratory setting before they build the real thing? Building a model enables engineers and inventors to test their ideas using less expensive materials before the "real thing" is built out of its final—and likely more expensive—material. Engineers run airplane models through thousands of tests before building the real thing.

Have you made an airplane, only to have it make an immediate nosedive into the ground? Many factors affect airplane flight perrformance. What factors can you think of that affect the flight of a glider like a paper airplane? (Answer: Features such as rudders, a streamlined design, weight, ailerons [the flaps on the main wings], elevators on the rear ends of the back wings, etc., that affect the flight length, steering and flight distance.) Engineers consider all of these factors when designing airplanes for speed, distance and cargo. In this lesson and its associated activity, you will act as if you are aerospace engineers by testing and refining different paper airplane models.

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers


Paper airplanes can be traced back to China, approximately 2,000 years ago, when the Chinese invented kites. Japanese origami, which dates to the 12th century, developed the art form of folding paper into myriad shapes and models. The word origami comes from the Japanese words "oru," to fold, and "kami," paper. In the late 1700s, hot air balloons were built partly out of paper.

Paper airplane construction is a popular hobby and many ways are possible to build model gliders and airplanes. Traditionalists use only a sheet of paper while others cut, tape and/or paste their models together. The Guinness Book of World Records even has multiple paper airplane categories including flight duration, distance and wingspan. The record for distance with a paper airplane is 193 feet, set in 1985. The record for duration of flight is 27.6 seconds, set in 1998. The largest wingspan on a plane that flew is 40 feet, 10 inches.

How Do Paper Airplanes Fly?

Usually paper airplanes are gliders. The basic shape of a paper airplane includes wings and a body. The wings enable a plane to "sit" on the air. The wings compress the air molecules underneath them, creating higher pressure than the air above the wings. The air above the wings then has lower pressure. The wings then "rest" on the higher air pressure. Figure 1 shows and identifies the various basic parts found on most airplanes.

A drawing of an airplane with labeled parts: propeller, spinner, wing, cockpit, elevator, rudder, tail, flap, aileron, fuselage and engine.
Figure 1. The basic parts of an airplane.
Copyright © NASA http://whyfiles.larc.nasa.gov/text/kids/Problem_Board/problems/flight/parts2.html

Adding features like rudders, tails, ailerons and/or flaps can change the flight direction or performance. A flap can help to turn the airplane, while a heavy nose can cause a plane to nosedive. A sturdy body helps control the airplane and a rudder helps stabilize the plane.


aerodynamics: The study of the affects of bodies moving relative to gases, especially the interaction of moving objects with the atmosphere.

aileron: Either of two movable flaps on the wings of an airplane that can be used to control the plane's rolling and banking movements.

drag: The retarding (slowing down) force exerted on a moving body by a fluid medium such as air or water.

elevator: A movable control surface, usually attached to the horizontal stabilizer of an aircraft that is used to produce nose-up or nose-down motion (pitch).

glider: A light engineless aircraft designed to glide after being towed aloft or launched from a high location such as a building or mountain.

launch: To set or thrust a craft or projectile into motion.

lift: Force available for overcoming the force of gravity.

nose: The nose of an aircraft is the structure at the very front of the aircraft that is shaped in such a way as to reduce drag. The nose is usually shaped like a cone or a dome.

rudder: A vertically hinged plate of metal, fiberglass, or wood mounted at the tail of an aircraft, used for effecting horizontal changes in course.

stability: Stability is the ability of an object, such as a ship or aircraft, to maintain equilibrium or resume its original, upright position after being displaced from its original course.

streamlined: Designed or arranged to offer the least resistance to airflow.

thrust: The forward-directed force developed in a propeller, jet, or rocket engine as a reaction to the high-velocity rearward ejection of air or exhaust gases.

weight: A measure of the heaviness of an object.

Associated Activities

  • Heads Up - Students fold different types of paper airplanes and then test them for flight distance and air time, as well as come up with their own designs to also test. The activity also serves as an introduction to subsequent lessons/activities in which students explore making modifications to simple paper airplane designs to meet certain objectives.

Lesson Closure

(After conducting the associated activity.) Ask students to think about qualities that made their airplanes fly well (such as shape, rudders, wing span, etc.). Discuss what they learned about trial and error. Remind them that engineers rely on trial and error to evolve their designs, make them better and better. Tell them the next activity will help them focus on changing the variables on one type of paper airplane.


Pre-Lesson Assessment

Discussion Questions: Solicit, integrate, and summarize student responses

  • How many of you have ever made a paper airplane?
  • How many of you have tried with a friend to see whose airplane will go the farthest or the highest? What did you do to accomplish this?

Post-Introduction Assessment

Voting: Ask a true/false question, and have students vote by holding thumbs up for true and thumbs down for false. Count the number of true and false and write the number on the board. Give the right answer.

  • True/False: Design, weight and rudders are all things that can affect paper airplane flight. (True)
  • True/False: Engineers consider the purpose (cargo, speed, distance) of the airplane before designing it. (True)
  • True/False: Engineers make models of things like airplanes to test their ideas in a laboratory setting before they build the real thing? (True)
  • True/False: When an engineer designs and builds something, it usually works the first time and they are done? (False: Engineers almost always have to redesign something several times before it is finished.)

Lesson Summary Assessment

Human Matching: On separate pieces of paper, write both the terms and the definitions of several of the vocabulary words for this lesson. Ask for volunteers from the audience to come up to the front of the room, and give each person one of the pieces of paper. Have all volunteers read what is written on their papers one at a time. Have the audience match term to definition by voting. Have student "terms" stand by their "definitions." At the end, give a brief explanation of concepts.

Lesson Extension Activities

Many websites are dedicated to paper airplanes and design. If students want to continue to experiment with paper airplane design on their own or as part of another class, suggest they take a look at the Paper Aircraft Association webpage at http://www.topphotograph.dsl.pipex.com/paamain/index.html.

Consider holding a competition for longest flight and longest duration of a paper airplaine/glider. See if you can utilize the gym or an outside space. Define a starting line for launching and clearly marked distance lines for measuring flight distance.

Another great resource for students interested in paper airplane design is the Whitewings webpage at http://www.whitewings.com/. Whitewings are inexpensive balsa or paper airplane kits (~$5 for one or ~$20 for a kit with 8 balsa gliders) available at some hobby stores and online (see a list of stores at whitewings.com). The website also gives tips for tuning and piloting the planes.


Schmidt, Norman. Super Paper Airplanes. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 1996.

Shulan, Michael. The Complete Paper Airplane Book, Watermill Press, 1979.

Paper Aircraft Association. Accessed 2004. http://www.topphotograph.dsl.pipex.com/paamain/index.html


Tom Rutkowski; Alex Conner; Geoffrey Hill; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell


© 2004 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 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: November 5, 2016