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Lesson: Heavy Helicopters

Quick Look

Grade Level: 8 (7-9)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Lesson Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Algebra, Physical Science, Physics


Students learn about weight and drag forces by making paper helicopters and measuring how adding more weight affects the time it takes for the helicopters to fall to the ground.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

A hand holds a simple “helicopter” made from cut and folded paper.
Students make simple paper helicopters and test them with different weights.

Engineering Connection

For safety, speed and fuel efficiency, when designing recreation and transportation vehicles, engineers take into account all forces acting on the object. Engineers consider drag forces when they design land, air and water vehicles. When prototyping objects such as wings, windshields, propellers, helmets, sports equipment, or even an athlete's position, engineers use a wind tunnel to see the drag forces that are created around an object when air moves by, and they adjust their designs to minimize the amount of drag.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Define drag and explain how this force depends upon factors such as the shape of a helicopter blade.
  • Explain that weight is a force that increases by adding mass.
  • Collect data, make graphs and calculate averages.
  • Think of ideas for how engineers might re-design a helicopter for different purposes.

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-PS2-2. Plan an investigation to provide evidence that the change in an object's motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object. (Grades 6 - 8)

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This lesson focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Plan an investigation individually and collaboratively, and in the design: identify independent and dependent variables and controls, what tools are needed to do the gathering, how measurements will be recorded, and how many data are needed to support a claim.

Alignment agreement:

Science knowledge is based upon logical and conceptual connections between evidence and explanations.

Alignment agreement:

The motion of an object is determined by the sum of the forces acting on it; if the total force on the object is not zero, its motion will change. The greater the mass of the object, the greater the force needed to achieve the same change in motion. For any given object, a larger force causes a larger change in motion.

Alignment agreement:

All positions of objects and the directions of forces and motions must be described in an arbitrarily chosen reference frame and arbitrarily chosen units of size. In order to share information with other people, these choices must also be shared.

Alignment agreement:

Explanations of stability and change in natural or designed systems can be constructed by examining the changes over time and forces at different scales.

Alignment agreement:

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-ETS1-4. Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved. (Grades 6 - 8)

Do you agree with this alignment?

Click to view other curriculum aligned to this Performance Expectation
This lesson focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Develop a model to generate data to test ideas about designed systems, including those representing inputs and outputs.

Alignment agreement:

Models of all kinds are important for testing solutions.

Alignment agreement:

The iterative process of testing the most promising solutions and modifying what is proposed on the basis of the test results leads to greater refinement and ultimately to an optimal solution.

Alignment agreement:

  • 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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  • Use the equation of a linear model to solve problems in the context of bivariate measurement data, interpreting the slope and intercept. (Grade 8) More Details

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  • Know that straight lines are widely used to model relationships between two quantitative variables. For scatter plots that suggest a linear association, informally fit a straight line, and informally assess the model fit by judging the closeness of the data points to the line. (Grade 8) 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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  • Knowledge gained from other fields of study has a direct effect on the development of technological products and systems. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • Predict and evaluate the movement of an object by examining the forces applied to it (Grade 8) More Details

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Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/lessons/view/cub_mechanics_lesson01_activity1] to print or download.

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High School Lesson


When skydivers jump out of airplanes, the force that prevents them from accelerating towards the Earth in an uncontrolled way is drag. Drag acts in the direction opposite to motion. This opposing force slows down anything moving through the air.

You can feel drag if you stick your hand out a car window while the car is moving. It feels like a pressure pushing your hand backwards. The amount of drag that your hand creates depends on factors such as the size of your hand, the speed of the car and the density of the air. If you were to slow down, you would notice that the drag on your hand would decrease. If you change the position of your hand, you can increase or decrease drag by changing the amount of surface area facing the direction of movement.

The drag force generally increases for objects with large surface areas. For example, the large surface of a parachute helps a skydiver create more air resistance. We see many examples of drag reduction when we watch sporting competitions in the Olympics. Championship skiers, speed skaters and bicyclists squeeze down into a tight crouch. By making themselves "smaller," they decrease the drag they create, which enables them to move faster.

Drag exists because of the motion between a fluid (even air!) and an object. It doesn't matter if the object is stationary and the fluid is moving, or if the fluid is still and the object is moving through it. What really matters is the difference in speeds between the object and the fluid. This is why wind tunnels (an enclosed space with a stationary object surrounded by moving air) can be used to study the aerodynamics of objects—the drag forces are the same as if the object was moving and the fluid was still.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Predictions:Ask students to predict the time it will take for helicopters to fall and record their predictions on the classroom board.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Have students record their observations on the Heavy Helicopters Worksheet. Review their answers to gauge their mastery of the subject.

Brainstorming: In small groups, have the students engage in open discussion. Remind students that no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard.

  • What can we do to alter the impact of forces? Do parachutes/helicopters with larger surface areas go faster or slower? (Answer: Slower)
  • Which force is this taking advantage of? (Answer: Drag)
  • What if we add weight? (Answer: It will fall faster.)
  • Could we make a parachute with a large area and a large weight that falls at the same rate as a small area and a small weight? (Answer: Yes)

Post-Activity Assessment

Question/Answer: Ask the students and discuss as a class:

  • What is the force that pulls the helicopter/parachute to the ground? (Answer: Weight)
  • What force is acting in the opposite direction to the force of gravity when you drop the helicopter/parachute? (Answer: Drag)
  • What happened to the descent time for the helicopter as you added paperclips? (Answer: The descent time decreased as the weight of the helicopter increased.)

Discussion Question: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses.

  • Describe how the paperclips affected the landing of the helicopter.

Writing: Have students answer the following questions in a short paragraph.

  • How could you design your helicopter/parachute to make it more effective?
  • What do you think your design would accomplish that this helicopter design did not accomplish?
  • Would your observations for this activity change with your new model helicopter?

Lesson Extension Activities

Have students explore the history of helicopters at: http://www.helis.com/ and http://www.helicoptermuseum.org/.

Have students make posters showing the basic principles of how hang gliders, parachutes, airplanes or helicopters work: http://howstuffworks.com/.


Rodriguez, Leticia. Biology/Chemistry – Gravity Lesson. June 12, 2003. Science and Mathematics Initiative for Learning Enhancement, Illinois Institute of Technology. October 20, 2003. http://www.iit.edu/~smile/phma1700.htm


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado


Sabre Duren; Ben Heavner; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise W. Carlson

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 30, 2020

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