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Lesson: You Are There... First Flight

Quick Look

Grade Level: 6 (5-7)

Time Required: 2 hours 30 minutes

Plan on 50 minutes to introduce the lesson concept, 50 minutes for the class to prepare the script for the "You Are There" recreation, and two 25-minute sessions for rehearsals and acting out the recreation

Lesson Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Physical Science, Physics

The HL-10 lifting body aircraft landing at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, California.
Students research the first flight
Copyright © Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/50/HL-10_First_Flight_Landing_-_GPN-2000-000086.jpg


Students learn about archives and primary sources as they research original historical documents. While preparing an imaginative first-person account as if witnessing an historical event, they learn to appreciate the value of the first-person, eye-witness account and understand its limitations. Note: The literacy activities for the Mechanics unit are based on physical themes that have broad application to our experience in the world — concepts of rhythm, balance, spin, gravity, levity, inertia, momentum, friction, stress and tension.

Engineering Connection

Engineering designs and technology evolve by building on the past accomplishments of others. When designing new and improved products engineers conduct historical research to learn what other engineers and inventors have created so they can learn from their mistakes and successes, and respect their patent rights. As bicycle mechanics and designers, the Wright brothers understood the science of forces and the laws of motion. When designing their prototype gliders and aircraft, they researched technical papers describing the aeronautical theories of the 1890s.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Students apply skills in analysis, synthesis, evaluation and explanation to their writing and speaking.
  • Write and speak in the content areas using the technical vocabulary of the subject accurately.
  • Understand how engineering designs and technology evolve by building on the past accomplishments of others

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) More Details

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One hundred years ago, on December 17, 1903, on a lonely stretch of the North Carolina coast known as Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers successfully completed the first mechanically-powered human flight. Because of the risk they might not succeed, the Wrights did not invite members of the press to witness the event.

"Five hundred years from now when Americans look back at this era, the greatest accomplishment of this century will be flight," said prominent historian Douglas Brinkley of the University of New Orleans." It was the beginning of seeing Earth as a whole. ... Humankind had been trying to figure out how to be airborne since our earliest days, and here on the shores of North Carolina it had occurred."

In this activity, you will become a witness to history. You will recreate this great historical moment in the style of the classic television program, "You Are There." Broadcast live from 1953-57, this TV show reconstructed significant historical events using authentic primary sources and actual quotations. Real CBS News reporters acted as if they were witnessing the events, interviewing participants "live." The series was based on a radio program of the same name that was broadcast from 1947-50. If you prepare a radio program instead of a television program you will not have to build props, but you will have to make up for the lack of visuals by describing the action.


Archive: A place or collection containing records, documents or other materials of historical interest.

Bias: An unfair judgment; prejudice.

Perspective: A mental view or outlook; point-of-view. The ability to perceive things in terms of their relative importance.

Posterity: Future generations.

Primary source/text: "Primary sources are materials produced by people or groups directly involved in the event or topic under consideration, either as participants or witnesses. Examples of primary texts include eyewitness accounts, decrees, letters and diaries, newspapers and magazines, speeches, autobiographies, and treatises. Tax rolls, census data, and marriage, birth and death registers are also primary texts. In addition, historians ... [use] coins, works of art, or archaeological remains...The most important characteristics of a primary text, in other words, are that it was created at the time of the event under analysis and that it is not interpreted. It is primary and not derivative." (Source: Rampolla, Mary Lynn. A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 2001, 4).

Secondary source/text: Interpretation of a primary text. Secondary sources include articles, textbooks, movies, maps and statistical charts.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Call-Out Questions: Quiz students with call-out questions during the Observing and Thinking phases, to be sure they understand the concepts of primary and secondary sources, and following the reading of Mr. Root's first-hand account, to make sure they understand why the account is of interest to historians. The students also need to understand how to adapt this account for the "You Are There" recreation of the true first flight.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Class Presentation: Evaluate students on their teamwork in successfully accomplishing the various tasks.

Post-Activity Assessment

Class Presentation: The class as a whole is responsible for the success of the final presentation of the First Flight recreation, and can be critiqued and rewarded as a group.

Discussion Questions: Ask the students, and discuss as a class:

  • What physical forces did the Wright brothers have to understand to design an airplane that could fly? (Possible answers: Gravity, drag, thrust, weight, lift, acceleration, center of mass, balance, stress and strain on materials, air resistance, laws of motion, friction, rotational motion, etc.)
  • The brothers ran a bicycle repair, design and manufacturing company. How do you think this experience and expertise might have helped them as they set out to design an airplane? (Possible answer: They used the occupation to fund their growing interest in flight. Their work and projects with bicycles, gears, bicycle motors, and balance [while riding a bicycle], were critical to their success in creating the mechanical airplane. They understood mechanics and materials, and had the skills and knowledge to fabricate and test wing and flyer designs.)
  • How might the brothers be considered to be mechanical and aeronautical engineers? (Possible answer: They used their understanding of science and math extended to machines, engineering design and flight, and applied it invent something new.)

Lesson Extension Activities

To give a "you are there" feel to coverage of the 2003 Iraqi war, journalists were embedded with the troops. This meant they actually lived with the soldiers and witnessed the action as it occurred. Learn about this practice and discuss in class. For additional information, use the Internet to search "Positive, Negative Aspects of Embedded Journalism."


Culick, F.E.C. The First Flight. Aerospace, NASA. Accessed May 4, 2004. http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/aero/wright/background/first.html

First Flight. North Carolina's Outer Banks. http://www.outer-banks.com/flight/ Accessed May 4, 2004.

First Flight, Flights of Inspiration. The Franklin Institute Online, Philadelphia, PA. Accessed May 4, 2004. http://www.fi.edu/flights/first/intro.html

Jakab, Peter L. and Tom D. Crouch. The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age. National Geographic, 2003.

Tobin, James. To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. Free Press, 2003.

Wright Brothers' Flying Machine. NOVA, PBS. Accessed May 4, 2004. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/wright/

The Wright Brothers, Huffman Prairie. National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian. Accessed May 4, 2004. http://www.nasm.si.edu/wrightbrothers/fly/1904/huffman.cfm

Wright Brothers Papers, Paperless Archives, http://www.paperlessarchives.com/wright_brothers_papers.html, accessed May 4, 2004. (Archive of 16,100 pages of Wright Brothers papers.)

The Wright Story. Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company and Museum of Pioneer Aviation, http://www.first-to-fly.com/History/Wright%20Story/wright%20story.htm, accessed May 4, 2004.


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.


Jane Evenson; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise 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 a grant 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: August 8, 2018

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