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Parachute Design and Drop

In this make and take, students exploit the force of drag to make a parachute that will drop as slowly as possible to the ground. They are encouraged to modify their model to find the design that is the most successful.

When a parachute is released, the weight pulls down on the strings. The large surface area of the parachute material provides air resistance to slow the parachute down. The larger the surface area the more air resistance and the slower the parachute will drop.

Objectives

  • Determine how manipulating the design of aircraft changes the size and direction of flight forces and link those changes to changes in the aircraft’s motion.
    Explain how the drag force is created and what factors affect it’s size and direction.

Materials

  • Per student:
    2 plastic bags (or light material)
    scissors
    string
    tape
    small object to act as the weight (washer, peg, action figure)

Key Questions

  • Which of the four forces of flight are you trying to take advantage of in this challenge? What happens when you change a variable (add/reduce weight, change the shape/size of the chute)? Will a smaller or larger surface area produce more drag? Look at your classmates’ designs. What do the slowest falling parachutes all have in common?

What To Do

Instructions:

  1. The challenge is to create a parachute that falls to the ground as slowly as possible to get your payload to the ground safely with the materials provided. The parachute will be released from a distance of approximately 3 metres.
  2. Cut out a large square/circle/octagon (or your own design) from your plastic bag.
  3. Cut and place 8 small pieces of tape near the edge of the “canopy.” Cut 8 small holes through the tape and the canopy with your scissors.
  4. Attach 8 pieces of string of the same length of your choice to each of the holes.
  5. Tie or tape the pieces of string to the object you are using as a weight.
  6. Use a chair or find a high spot to drop your parachute and test how well it worked, noting changes that you think would make it fall more slowly.
  7. Go ‘back to the drawing board’ and modify your parachute until you have your best design in the time allowed.

Extensions

  • How can you get your parachute to fall straighter? Cutting a small hole in the middle of the parachute will allow air to slowly pass through it rather than spilling out over one side, causing the parachute to fall straighter. With the students, discuss how George Cayley, inventor of the glider, spent 50 years modifying his design to build the perfect glider. How did the students feel after their first drop? Frustrated? Motivated? What motivates an inventor to spend his or her life trying to perfect an invention?

Other Resources

Science World Resources | Full Unit |  Flight

Science World Resources | Full Unit | Air

Science World Resources | Full Units | The Air Up There (for kindergarteners)

Science World Resources | Unit: The Air Up There | Make & Take | Make Your Own Parachute
(a kindergarten version of this activity)