There are many designs and shapes of parachutes, but all have a few common elements: a canopy that catches air, rope that hangs below, and a type of rigging to attach a payload or passenger. Think like an engineer and design a parachute that lets you land your passenger safely on a target. Students learn about the design process and experiment with concepts of aerodynamics in this activity.
The final piece is a functional parachute that safely transports the chosen passengers to the ground and onto a landing target of your choosing.
2-3 hours class time
For all students
- Various types of string and yarn
- Paper clips & binder clips
- Hot glue guns & glue
- Cutting tools (scissors, X-acto knives, etc.)
- Paper punches (optional)
- Various lightweight containers (small box, plastic cup, etc.)
- Parachute materials (tissue paper, printer paper, heavy construction paper, coffee filters, plastic bags, fabric, napkins, etc.)
- Attachment materials (glues, tapes, etc.)
- Stopwatches (optional)
- Rulers (optional)
Per student or group
- 10 large paperclips, medium sized binder clip, or other standard weight to add to the parachutes.
- Optional: action figures to put the parachutes on for fun.
Overview of Steps
- Introduce students to the challenge. Demonstrate your parachute.
- Explore materials.
- Plan and sketch parachute designs.
- Build the parachutes.
- Test the parachutes.
- Redesign and testing (optional)
Setup & Planning
- If possible, create an example of your own prior to introducing the project. Make it as simple as possible as to not influence the students too much. If you have access to the outdoors, have a demonstration day where you set off your parachute into the wind. Challenge your students to design an even better parachute!
- Collect recyclables! Feel free to collect your own recyclables or follow the instructions under “Procedure” to have your students work on collecting recyclables as an ongoing extension activity.
- Think about setting up your recyclables as a store if you have older students learning about budgeting. Sort and display your recycled materials as a store and price each category. Students can be assigned a budget and must come to you or a student volunteer to “buy” their materials. Teach students about pre-planning and you can have them submit a drawing of their parachute along with their budget and supply list.
- If not setting up the collected recyclables as a “Maker store” as outlined above, sort your materials out by type to make exploration easier. If you don’t have space to store separated recycled materials, think about keeping everything in a large bin. When class is in session, dump the mixed supplies on the floor and you can call it the “local dump”. In this setup, students can use their imaginations and try seeing materials in a different way.
- Decide on where you will test out the parachutes. Set up a chair or other STABLE platform to stand on. Place a marking on the ground such as a piece of paper with a target drawn on it.
Optional Extension Activity: Recyclable Scavenger Hunt/Makerspace Recycling Program
As an optional activity, students can collect, sort, and organize their own Makerspace recycling program! Help students to organize classroom pickup of recyclables as well as sorting and organizing materials. Taking and keeping inventory of the materials can also be a rotating duty. Doing this will supply your Makerspace with endless materials and will also teach your students about reusing and upcycling materials. This can be an ongoing activity or even a club!
For a less large-scale activity about recycling, have the students complete a scavenger hunt in groups to get the materials for the activity. Have each group assigned a different category (plastics, cardboard, cans, paper, etc.) and send them out into the school to find materials. For younger students, you can have an aid or parent volunteer escort each group to different classrooms looking for the materials.
Introduce the Project
Talk about the design challenge:
How can we create a parachute that slows down the fall of a passenger to get them safely to the ground?
- Demonstrate by dropping a passenger (this can be fun with an action figure) without a parachute and time (or count out) how many seconds it will take for them to get to the ground. You can raise it as high as you can or stand on a chair or other STABLE platform. Ask the students what they saw. The passenger will drop very quickly and will likely bounce. This is not a safe landing!
- Now, attach your example to the passenger and drop it (hold it from the top of the parachute). Time or have students count how long it takes to reach the ground. Did the parachute slow the fall of the passenger? Did the parachute and passenger fall straight down or off to the side?
- Parachutes are a lesson in air resistance. Parachutes work because of air resistance. If there were no air resistance, then gravity would cause everything to fall at the same rate. So, no matter what you dropped from a plane (whether a feather or a paratrooper), it would hit the ground at exactly the same time.
- The broad surface area of the canopy catches the air and slows the parachute down. If you have ever flown a kite or tried to ride your bike into the wind, you know that air can push hard. Wind can push harder against something that has a broad, flat shape. By experimenting with the weight, shape and size of your parachute, you change how fast and how much air is pushed out of the way.
- The study of how wind effects the speed of object is called aerodynamics.
- Allow some time for students to explore the materials. They can feel them, pick them up, or even test out their floating ability by dropping them on a desk or floor.
- Now give your students some time to draw up a plan for what their parachute will look like and be made from. Pre-planning is an important part of the design process and can help give direction and efficiency to your students. Students should label their drawings with the materials that they have chosen. Here are some factors that students can keep in mind while planning
- Parachute material
- Parachute shape
- Parachute size
- Number of parachutes (students can choose to make layered parachutes or attach multiple to a single weight)
- Solid material vs parachute with holes
- Type of lines (strings, yarn, etc.)
- Length of lines (can use rulers to measure)
- Number of lines
- Placement of lines
- Line attachment methods (holes, tape, glue, tying, paperclips, etc.)
- Students should now construct their parachutes. You can allow them to test them on their own, or do it as a class. Time how long it takes for the passenger (or paperclips) to touch the ground. Make sure that the students are raising them to the same height each time.
- You may allow the students to modify their parachutes or make new ones. The objective is to slow the passenger down the most.
- You can also have students test different weights by adding or removing paperclips. What effect does the added weight have on the canopy design?
Tips & Tricks
- If your find that the ‘passenger’ swings back and forth as it falls, try adding more weight to ensure a smooth, straight drop.
- Have students create their own landing targets! Using paper and markers, have the students draw concentric circles to create a bullseye landing target for their passengers. To play a game as an extension, assign point values and have a leaderboard drawn on your whiteboard/chalkboard.
- This activity can be very enriching in the great outdoors! Have students use their parachutes outside and learn about wind interference and natural obstacles. If you still want to talk about wind indoors, think about using a fan or blow dryer.
- Do your students respond to competition and challenges? Challenge pairs of students to see whose parachute can land closest to the target, or which parachute can carry the same weight but take the most time to land.
- This activity does not require a ton of storage space as the canopies can be folded up.
Interested in more STEAM Project-based Learning resources? TinkRworks K-8 supplemental curriculum makes it simple to add hands-on STEAM education to your school. Learn more: www.TinkRworks.com.