Teacher Notes

Paper Airplanes

Flinn STEM Design Challenge™

Materials Included In Kit

Aluminum foil, 12" x 25' roll
Cardstock, 25 sheets
Construction paper, 25 sheets
Paper clips, box of 100
Washers, 75

Additional Materials Required

Copy paper, 100 sheets
Tape, clear
Tape measure or meter stick
Timer or stopwatch

Safety Precautions

All items in this activity are considered nonhazardous. Prompt students to use caution when throwing paper airplanes and to make sure line of flight is clear—airplane tips may be sharp. Wear safety glasses. Remind students to wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water before leaving the laboratory.


All items may be disposed of in the regular trash.

Lab Hints

  • Enough materials are provided in this kit for 30 students working in pairs.
  • All parts of this activity can be reasonably completed in three 50-minute class periods. Part A can be completed on Day 1. Part B can be completed in two days, with designing and building occurring on Day 2 and testing on Day 3. The prelaboratory assignment may be completed before class.
  • If students are struggling to maintain longer flights, decrease the number of required metal washers carried by the paper airplane.
  • Make a copy of the Folding Guide for each lab group.

Teacher Tips

  • This is a great hands-on activity that demonstrates the physics of flight and may be used as a component for a unit on force, motion and types of interactions.
  • Students may build any style of paper airplane for the challenge. It may be helpful to allow research or homework time to enable students to learn the benefits and disadvantages of various designs. Visit www.foldnfly.com (accessed September 2015) for guides on how to fold different paper airplane designs.
  • It is suggested to test paper airplanes in a large area, such as a hallway or gymnasium. Multiple planes can be safely tested at the same time if enough space is allowed. Remind students to wear safety glasses at all times.
  • Students may be assigned to different roles during the team testing portion to help the activity run smoothly. Student roles may include the following:

    Length of plane judge
    Washer requirement judge
    Budget judge
    Timing judge
    Flight distance judge

  • Possible extensions include challenging teams to design a plane that can carry the heaviest load, fly the fastest or execute a full back flip.

Correlation to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

Science & Engineering Practices

Asking questions and defining problems
Planning and carrying out investigations
Using mathematics and computational thinking
Constructing explanations and designing solutions
Obtaining, evaluation, and communicating information

Disciplinary Core Ideas

MS-ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems
MS-ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution
HS-ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions

Crosscutting Concepts

Structure and function
Scale, proportion, and quantity
Cause and effect

Performance Expectations

MS-ETS1-2. Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
MS-ETS1-3. Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.
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.
HS-ETS1-2. Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.

Answers to Prelab Questions

  1. Summarize the four forces acting on a plane and how they interact.

    The four forces acting on a plane are thrust, drag, weight and lift. Drag opposes thrust and lift opposes the weight of the plane.

  2. The world record for the farthest paper airplane flight is 69 meters. The plane had a flight time of approximately 9 seconds. What was the average velocity?

    Velocity = distance / time = 69 m / 9 s = 7.67 m/s

  3. Make a list of variables that may affect the flight distance of a paper airplane. Which variable(s) may be difficult to control?

    Student answers will vary. Possible factors that may affect fllight distance are weight of the paper plane, how hard it is thrown and the angle the plane is thrown at.

Sample Data

Table 1. Prototype Design Costs

Table 2. Final Product Costs and Design
Table 3. Test Trials

Answers to Questions

  1. How much money was spent during the design process? Estimate how much of that cost was attributed to waste.

    See Sample Data Table 1.

  2. What is the final cost of the paper airplane your team designed?

    See Sample Data Table 2.

  3. Write a letter to FlinnToy summarizing your design initiative. Give the total cost for each manufactured. What is the average and the longest distance your design can fly? What modifications were applied to your design to ensure requirements were met? Why should the company pick your design?

    Dear FlinnToy,

    My team has completed the design for a paper airplane toy that can carry a load of 5 metal washers. The final cost for each manufactured toy is $4.00. Our design was able to fly an average of 4.3 meters, with the longest distance being 4.7 meters. The design includes the use of both cardstock and construction paper, making the toy very sturdy. We added upward angled elevators to create more lift, as the front of the plane is heavy due to the use of two thick paper materials. This forward weight lessens the need for added weight to the nose for flight stability. The metal washers must be distributed along the spine of the plane for even weight. Tape is used to hold them in place. This design has proven to be very sturdy with a consistent and stable flight. With each toy being under budget for production, we believe this would be a great design for your company.

    Thank you,
    Team A

  4. As stated, the thrust force for a paper airplane’s flight is not constant. What is actually happening to the paper airplane’s velocity throughout flight?

    Since thrust force only occurs during the initial throw and drag force continues throughout flight, the plane’s velocity will decrease.

  5. What would be the resulting velocity if the toy had an engine providing a constant thrust force? Assume the opposing drag force is unchanging.

    If thrust force is constant, the resulting velocity will also be constant.

Teacher Handouts



NASA Glen Research Center. https://www.grc.nasa.gov/www/k-12/airplane/bga.html (accessed June, 2015).

Fold N’ Fly (2015). Paper Airplane Designs. www.foldnfly.com (accessed June 2015).

National Park Service. Wright Brothers. www.nps.gov/wrbr/index.htm (accessed June, 2015).

Pat’s Planes. http://patsplanes.com/sub_main/sub_fold/trim.html (accessed August, 2015).

Student Pages

Paper Airplanes


The heaviest airplane to ever fly weighed 705 tons—the weight of 130 elephants! How is it possible that something so heavy can fly? The components of flight are constantly researched and refined to create economical and aerodynamic planes. Explore the physics of flight by designing and building a long-distance paper airplane.


  • Aerodynamics
  • Lift
  • Force
  • Drag


Many historians believe that the Chinese were the first to build paper aircrafts—they were the early inventors of paper and the original creators of paper kites. However, the definitive history of paper airplanes remains a mystery. The mechanisms of flight are similar for both paper and real airplanes. For this reason, paper airplanes are an excellent model for investigating the physics of flying. In fact, a toy helicopter first inspired Milton and Orville Wright’s passion for the possibilities of flight. After receiving a toy helicopter from their father, the brothers experimented with building their very own helicopters. In December of 1903, the Wright brothers and their airplane, the Flyer, accomplished the first powered flight, flying a total of 120 feet for 12 seconds. A short 5 years later, Madame Therese Peltie became the first woman pilot, and it was only 66 years later that Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, honorably carrying a piece of wood and fabric from the 1903 Flyer.

Four forces are involved when analyzing flight—weight, lift, thrust and drag (see Figure 1).

Weight is equal to mass times acceleration. The acceleration is the Earth’s gravitational pull, defined as g = 9.81 m/s2. Both the mass of the airplane and the acceleration of gravity affect the overall downward force on the plane. Lift works in opposition to the weight. When the plane moves forward, the plane’s wings drive air downward. In response, air pushes up on the plane. Thrust is a force produced by the airplane’s engines. The engines accelerate air from the front of the plane to the rear, resulting in an equal and opposite force propelling the plane forward. Imagine a filled balloon releasing air. The air inside the balloon escapes through the opening, and the balloon flies through the air! This is similar to what happens with the thrust of a jet engine. Lift and thrust work in similar fashions but in directions perpendicular to one another. Both can be understood by Newton’s third law, which states that every action force has an equal and opposite reaction force. Opposite to thrust is drag, also known as air resistance. This force is produced as air creates friction against the airplane. To limit drag, planes are made to be aerodynamic. Aerodynamics is the study of how gases interact with moving bodies. This concept is concerned with the forces of lift and drag caused by air passing over and around solid figures. Aerodynamics allows for air to flow cleanly over surfaces, such as the smooth, pointed front portion of an airplane. This is similar to sticking your hand out the window of a moving car. If your hand is flat with your palm facing down, your hand will glide easily through the air. As you rotate your hand, air will push your hand back, and the force you feel is drag. 

Newton’s second law states that the overall force acting upon an object depends on the object’s mass and acceleration (see Equation 1). In the case of airplanes, each of the four forces are acting in different directions. If the thrust force is greater than the drag, the airplane’s net horizontal force will be in the direction of thrust (forward).
Likewise, if the lift force is smaller than the airplane’s weight, the net vertical force will be downward. An airplane can maintain a constant speed and level flight, indicating that weight is balanced by lift and drag is balanced by thrust. If these forces become unbalanced, the airplane will move in the direction of the greater force. In the case of paper airplanes, thrust force only occurs at the point of throwing the plane and is not a constant force throughout flight.

The design of a paper airplane can drastically affect how the plane flies. Some paper airplane designs focus on distance whereas others strive for speed. Paper airplanes with narrow bodies and small wings are best fit for a speedy flight. On the other hand, those with large wings can fly higher and stay aloft longer. Overall, bilateral symmetry is the most important factor in the design. Each fold must make the left and right sides of the plane identical, indicating bilateral symmetry. It also helps to make sharp, crisp folds with a fingernail or ruler. Paper airplanes may require many adjustments to achieve the desired flight. This can include changing the angle of the wings or adding winglets. A winglet is a small, vertical wing projection on the side of the wing that can help add stability and reduce drag (see Figure 2).
The mechanism of lift on a paper airplane depends on the plane’s elevators, which are on the rear of the wings (see Figure 3). An upward-angled elevator will allow more lift to be generated. A downward-angled elevator will decrease the amount of lift.

Experiment Overview

The purpose of this design challenge is to build paper airplanes and test how various adjustments affect flight. Your challenge as a team is to design the farthest flying paper airplane carrying a load of five metal washers.


Aluminum foil
Cardstock paper
Construction paper
Copy paper
Paper clips
Timer or stopwatch
Washers, 5

Prelab Questions

  1. Summarize the four forces acting on a plane and how they interact.
  2. The world record for the farthest paper airplane flight is 69 meters. The plane had a flight time of approximately 9 seconds. What was the average velocity?
  3. Make a list of variables that may affect the flight distance of a paper airplane. Which variable(s) may be difficult to control?

Safety Precautions

All items in this activity are considered nonhazardous. Use caution when testing paper airplanes. Do not fly near other students; airplane tips may be sharp. Wear safety glasses. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before leaving the laboratory. Please follow all laboratory safety guidelines.


Part A. Introductory Activity

  1. Using a piece of plain copy paper, each team member should construct a paper airplane following the provided guide. Note: Be very precise with folds—remember the importance of symmetry!
  2. Test the flight of each paper airplane.
  3. Many adjustments can be made to make paper airplanes fly better. Experiment with the following adjustments. In the table below, document the effects of each change and predict what flight error the adjustment can help fix. Use the two empty rows to experiment with paperclip placement.
  4. Using the same design without any adjustments, make a paper airplane from each of the materials listed. How does the type of material affect flight?
Part B. Design Challenge

FlinnToy company is interested in manufacturing and selling a toy paper airplane. Your team has been chosen by FlinnToy to design the structure of a toy plane that is both economical and can carry five metal washers. The paper airplane cannot be larger than 30 cm in length. FlinnToy will choose the design that can fly the farthest while carrying the added weight. The cost of the approved building materials are below. The total cost budget for the final manufactured toy is $5.00.
  1. Design a paper airplane according to the specifications.
  2. Record the materials used in the design process in Table 1. The cost of materials are listed below. Any material taken from the supply area should be accounted for.
  3. You must purchase each item as a whole. For instance, you cannot pay for only half of a sheet of paper or a half inch of tape—anything that is unused will count as waste cost.
  4. Design cost includes materials needed to adhere metal washers to the plane.
  5. Record the required materials and costs for the final manufactured product in Table 2.
  6. You will be given a designated amount of time to design and build the toy airplane. Testing and making modifications must be made during that time period.
  7. When time is up, test all the toy airplanes as a group. Each team is allowed three throws.
  8. Pick a designated team member to act as the airplane thrower. This person should practice throwing the plane at the same speed and angle for each throw to ensure test accuracy.
  9. Record the data for test trials in Table 3. Record the distance traveled and time of flight for each throw.
  10. Consult your instructor for appropriate disposal procedures

Student Worksheet PDF


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