Museum of Science, Boston

Books for Kids

  • Aviation Legends Paper Airplane Book
    , by
    Ken Blackburn and Jeff Lammers
  • The Ultimate Paper Airplane
    , by
    Richard Kline

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April 2011: Copter Engineering

Copter Engineering

Whether watching a jet plane race across the sky, a paper airplane zoom through a room, or a bird soar overhead, children are fascinated by objects in motion and flight. The Copter Engineering activity presents children with an opportunity to explore two contributing factors to flight: air resistance and push. Although air is all around us, it can be difficult for young children to understand what is air and how it works, since air is invisible to the eye. By watching the copters spiral downward, children can see the affects of air on a spinning helicopter-like object.

The Discovery Center’s Copter Engineering activity teaches children about the engineering design process, the scientific method, tool use, and the scientific concepts of air resistance and push. Children are encouraged to be creative as they use paper, scissors, and paper clips to create and test a prototype, set a goal for creating a better copter, and change one variable at a time. Through testing in controlled experiments, children are challenged to make a copter that will meet their own goal.

Copters at Home

You can continue your Copter Engineering explorations at home by

Creating Copters at Home

Locating Copter Patterns

You can download and print the Discovery Center's basic copter patterns. Additional copter templates are available online at the PBS Kids "Hang Time" site and the Exploratorium's "RotoCopter" page (see links in left-hand side bar).

To create your copter:

1. Choose the size and wing shape of a copter design you would like to create.

2. Using a pair of scissors, cut on all of the dotted lines on the copter template.

3. Once you are done cutting, place your copter flat on the table to fold. Fold flap A over flap B, making a crease on the solid line.

4. Now fold flap C over flap B so that the bottom of your copter looks like a rectangle.

5. To fold the wings of your copter, fold flap D and E in opposite directions, while making sure to crease the paper on the solid line.

6. Add a paper clip to the bottom of your copter.

7. When you are ready to fly your copter, make sure to hold it out in front of you with the wings on top. Then, let it go and watch your copter spin!

Why do Copters Spin?

As the copter falls, air pushes up against the wings, which causes the wings to bend slightly upward. When air pushes upward on the slanted wing, some of that thrust becomes a sideways push. The two wings each receive an equal push, but in opposite directions. The two opposing thrusts work together to cause the copter to spin.

When creating their copters, children can change how fast or slow their copters spin by changing the size and/or shape of their copters’ wings. The spinning wings hit a lot of air on the way down, and all this air pushes back on the blades. The more air you can get to hit your blades, the slower your copter will fall.

Questions to Think About While you Experiment:

Can you make a copter that spins more quickly?

Can you make one that spins more slowly?

What happens if you change the wing shape, wing size, or weight of your copter?

Can you make your copter spin in a different direction?