Lesson: Land! Water! Sky! Oh My!

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

A photo shows several airplanes taxiing on the runway at Dubai International Airport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Airplanes are vital to our society and economy.
Copyright © 2007 Imre Solt, Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taxiing_Airplanes_at_DXB_on_13_November_2007.jpg


This lesson focuses on the importance of airplanes in today's society. Airplanes of all shapes and sizes are used for hundreds of different reasons, including recreation, commercial business, public transportation, and delivery of goods, among many others. From transporting people to crop-dusting, our society and our economy have come to depend on airplanes. Students discuss their own experiences with airplanes and learn more about the role of airplanes in our world.

Engineering Connection

Many different types of aircraft have beenn created for many different roles—commercial, general, transport and military—and engineers are responsible for designing and building them all. Engineers take into consideration the purpose of an airplane when they are designing it. Over the years, engineers have advanced the design of airplanes so they are more sophisticated and specialized. Engineers also design and build the aircraft support systems and structures, such as runways, airports, radar communications, and scheduling.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Identify the historical context of airplanes as relatively new compared to other modes of transportation.
  • Describe the use of airplanes in the transportation of goods and services.
  • Describe examples of how technology can affect individuals and communities.
  • Describe engineering-related contributions to aviation.

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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.

  • Many inventions and innovations have evolved using slow and methodical processes of tests and refinements. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Research and critically evaluate data and information about the advantages and disadvantages of using fossil fuels and alternative energy sources (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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Begin by showing illustrations of—or asking students to imagine—a truck, a train, and an airplane. Ask them to brainstorm the following: What do these things have in common? What is different about them? How do we use them? What kind of support do they need? What is their impact on our environment? How do they affect us? (It might be helpful to do this using a Venn diagram so that students can identify the differences and similarities between the different modes of transportation.) The answers to these questions should help provide an explanation as to why different types of transportation are valuable to us as a society. In fact, look at your shoes. Where do they come from? How did your shoes make it from the factory first to a shoe store and then to you? In this lesson, we will concentrate on airplanes, which is a relatively new mode of transport compared to other modes of transportation. Engineers are responsible not only for the design of the many various aircraft, but also for the support they need, including, but not limited to, airports, runways and aircraft maintenance. Engineers also play an important role in the technologies used in the airplane as well as at the airport itself.

Practically all humans have been touched in some way, at some time, by aviation. Aviation has three divisions: commercial, military and general. Commercial aviation refers to the airlines whose business it is to transport people and services all over the world. Military aviation refers to the Army, Navy and Air Force. General aviation refers to flights that are not military or commercial related, but consumers who fly private planes for leisure or business reasons. Ask how many students have been on an airplane for commercial aviation (a vacation or a visit to a relative's or friend's house) or general aviation (if they have been out with a pilot who flies for fun/recreation).

Commercial airlines serve about 450 of the nation's 14,000 airports. Meanwhile, general aviation airplanes service all 14,000 airports, making them a vital link in the air transportation system. General aviation airplanes have many different uses including business, air taxi, rental, commuter operations, personal transportation, sport flying, flight instruction, air ambulance and agricultural, among many others. Many athletes, musicians and politicians travel about on general aviation flights instead of commercial airlines for privacy and to ease of use.

Today, we will look at different technologies for transportation. We will compare/contrast airplanes with other modes of transportation and decide which are better for different situations and learn about the role of engineers in transportation.

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

History of Flight

In the early 1900s, two American brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright from Dayton, Ohio, began to experiment with gliders that they built using the results of experiments conducted by European Otto Lilienthal. However, most of the Wright brothers' flights failed.

In 1901, the Wright brothers decided to gather their own wing data by conducting systematic experiments on different types of wing configurations. In 1902, from this earlier experimentation, a glider with a wingspan of 32 ft. was invented. This was the first aircraft that could go up or down, left or right, and could roll about its longitudinal axis. Filled with confidence, Orville and Wilbur Wright returned to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where they had originally tested their first glider. At Kitty Hawk, they conquered the problem of aircraft control and stability.

The Wright brothers now decided to turn their attention to power. First, they built an engine that produced 12 horsepower. Next, they built the propellers. Consequently, the Kitty Hawk Flyer was born, and on December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright demonstrated self-powered flight in an aircraft.

Following the Wright brothers' success, a flurry of aeronautical activity took place around the world. In 1909, Europe also saw its share of aeronautical successes in the work of Santos-Dumont and Louis Bleriot, whose monoplane achieved the first flight across the English Channel in 1909.

As time passed, the speed of airplanes increased, from the 12 mph top speed of the Wright Brothers Kitty Hawk Flyer to the 400+ mph of the famous WWII era American P-51 Mustang.

Even though the velocity of newer aircraft was increasing, very soon it was realized that an invisible barrier was preventing aircraft from surpassing the speed of sound. This barrier is known as the "sound barrier." This barrier became the second biggest obstacle since man's first attempt at flying. In 1947, a young test pilot, Chuck Yeager, broke that barrier and exceeded the speed of sound. From that point on, a series of experimental supersonic aircraft took to the sky breaking one speed record after another. In 1962, the North American X-15 airplane achieved 6.7 times the speed of sound (Mach 6.7) at an altitude of 108 km.

Today we still can see some of the supersonic aircraft that were built in the 1960s. These pioneering aircraft include the British/French Concorde (cruise speed of Mach 2.0), the Russian TU-144 (cruise speed of Mach 2.2), and the famous American spy plane SR-71 Blackbird (while the actual cruise speed is classified, it is known to be well over Mach 3.0).

Airplanes have been around for more than 100 years. As you can see, many advances have been made, particularly in the last 70 years. Now, airplanes are still an important part of our lives. Today, engineers continue to strive to design better airplanes for commercial, military and general aviation. Engineers must consider both the principles addressed in earlier lessons of this unit as well as the economic effects of the airplanes they design.


aviation: Includes all flying done through general aviation, commercial airlines and the military.

commercial aviation: Refers to commercial airlines whose business is the transportation of goods and services.

general aviation: Refers to all flying outside of the military and commercial aviation and includes pilots who fly for recreation, air taxis, and crop dusting, among others.

military aviation: Refers to planes flown in the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Associated Activities

Lesson Closure

Have the students make a class list of all the modes of transportation that they can think of (examples include train, plane, automobile, skateboard, bicycle, etc.). Ask the students to explain in their own words for what purpose they would use each mode of transportation. What types of cargo would be transport by each mode of transportation? (Example answers: A train carries coal and livestock; airplanes carry people as well as a variety of products; vans transport packages, which might have come off of planes, boats and trains; etc.) Which types of transportation did engineers help design and build? (Answer: all of them.) How could engineers improve some of the transportation designs?


Pre-Lesson Assessment

Brainstorming: Have students generate a number of possible ideas about transportation. Encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of any ideas.

  • Begin by thinking about a truck, train and airplane. What do these three modes of transportation have in common? What is different about them? How do we use them? What kind of support do they need? What is their impact on our environment? How do they affect us? (Using a Venn diagram of a truck, train and plane would work nicely here.)

Post-Introduction Assessment

Question/Answer: Ask students questions and have them raise their hands to respond. Write answers on the board.

  • What role do engineers play in aviation? (Answer: Engineers are responsible not only for the design of these various aircraft, but also for the support they need, including airports, roads and aircraft maintenance. Engineers also play an important role in the technologies used in the airplane as well as at the airport.)
  • What are the three types of aviation? (Answer: commercial, military and general)
  • What is commercial aviation? (Answer: Commercial aviation describes the airlines that fly people between destinations, such as United, Frontier and Continental, among many others.)
  • Which type of aviation uses the most airports? (Answer: general)
  • What are some uses of general aviation? (Answer: General aviation airplanes have many different uses including business, air taxi, rental, commuter operations, personal transportation, sport flying, flight instruction, air ambulance, and agricultural.)

Lesson Summary Assessment

Community Debate: Have the students write/perform a short play or class debate about the airplane industry. The setting is a town meeting about one of the issues below. The people present are: an engineer, a manager of the airplane industry, a local politician, and various citizens. Scenarios include:

  • The city council wants to build a small general aviation airport on the outside edge of town. What are the pros/cons of having an airport in town?
  • A group of engineers have developed a new "model" airplane they want to sell. Why should or shouldn't they be permitted to do so.

Lesson Extension Activities

Have students chose an aircraft from any time in history and write a one-page essay on what that aircraft has contributed to human society. Require them to report the history of the aircraft and why it was invented/produced in the first place, and make the focus of the essay the impact of the aircraft during its service. Did it help win a war/battle? Was it the first plane to break a record? Did a famous event involve this aircraft? Did the airplane affect the way humans interact?

It may be fun to read to the students about the history of flight. Ask them to describe how engineers have been involved in flight. Are inventors like the Wright brothers considered engineers? (Answer: Yes, they are!)

Additional Multimedia Support

To learn more, refer to the History of Aviation page at this ebsite at http://www.allstar.fiu.edu.


Bellis, Mary. History of the Airplane - Orville and Wilbur Wright: The history of the airplane and flight. (airplanes, airplanes, history, safety and more) About, Inc. http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blairplane.htm

Uses of Airplanes - Level 1. Last updated March 12, 2004. Aeronautics Learning Laboratory for Science, Technology and Research, ALLSTAR Network, Florida International University. (Informative site on commercial, military and general aviation) http://www.allstar.fiu.edu/aero/fltmiduses.htm

History and future of airplanes. PBS Online. http://www.pbs.org/


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: June 6, 2017