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Why do Helicopters Spin?

We engage children’s natural curiosity about the world; we encourage them to formulate questions and then to actively seek answers to those questions, using whatever tools are at their disposal. 

With the increased focus on inquiry-based learning in the BC curriculum, Science World supports teachers to integrate inquiry learning into their classrooms.

Inquiry-based learning requires guidance from the teacher to support students’ progression along the inquiry continuum.

Levels of Inquiry (adapted from Banchi and Bell, “The Many Levels of Inquiry”, 2008.)

Teacher provides question and procedure.Teacher provides question and procedure.Teacher provides question.Teacher provides support.
Students follow directions to confirm the results. “Traditional” lab.Students generate an explanation based on evidence they’ve collected.Students design procedure to test question and resulting explanations.Students generate questions; design and carry out investigations; and draw conclusions.

This Helicopter activity can be adapted for any level of inquiry. Primary students who have less experience benefit from starting at the confirmation or structured levels of inquiry. It is important, at all levels of inquiry, that teachers help guide students through their thought processes (meta-cognition) based on their observations.


Question for investigation:  overarching goal of an investigation written as a question.

Independent variable: variable changed in a science experiment to test a dependent variable.

Dependent variable: variable that is “dependent” on the independent variable. It is the variable that is being tested in a science experiment.

Hypothesis: a proposed explanation made as a starting point for further investigation.

Prediction: a statement about what might happen in the future.

Results: outcome of investigation

Example of the Inquiry Process

Background Science

Air has mass and takes up space. When the helicopter is dropped, the air’s resistance slows down the helicopter. As the helicopter falls, the resistance from the air pushes the blades up into a slanted position. In this position, the air under one blade is pushing one way and the air under the other blade is pushing the opposite way. These two forces of air push the blades around and make it spin. The faster the blades spin, the less the air can get by, and the slower the helicopter falls.  The fall produces drag, which resists the force of gravity.


  • Describe how force can be applied to move an object.


  • Per paper helicopter:
    1 copy of the Paper Helicopter Template student (on ordinary paper). Teacher tip: pre-cut template for  younger students.
    1 paperclip


  • Additional supplies to test variables:
    scrap paper
    several paperclips
    several copies of the helicopter template on different weights of paper.


Key Questions

  • What can we change?
  • What do you think might happen?
  • Was your guess (or prediction) correct?
  • Did you get the result you wanted?
  • What other changes would you make?

What To Do

Part 1: Set up

  1. Present the class with a paper helicopter and the other half of the 8.5” x 11” paper it was cut out of. The paper should be folded twice lengthwise.
  2. Have students make predictions about how the paper and the helicopter will fall. Prompt with questions like “What might happen when I let go?” “Why?” Record predictions on the board.
  3. Drop the paper helicopter and the piece of paper from the same height at the same time.  What was the result (a result could be: which one landed first)?

Part 2: Activity

  1. Discuss results. Which prediction was correct?
  2. Pose the over-arching question: What makes the paper helicopter spin?
  3. Students construct their own helicopters and test them.
  4. Questions to prompt student thinking as they explore:
    1. What happens to the helicopter as it falls?
    2. Why do you think the helicopter falls to the ground?
    3. Why does the helicopter spin?
    4. Why does the helicopter drop slowly?

Ask Questions for a structured or guided inquiry:

  1. Divide class into 4 groups and assign each group a question (Question for investigation):
    1. What could we change to make the helicopter spin faster?
    2. What could we change to make the helicopter spin slower?
    3. What could we change to make the helicopter fall slower?
    4. What could we change to make the helicopter fall faster?

Teacher tip: For grades K-1, you may wish to divide the class into groups, but have the entire class work on one of the suggested questions.

Guide students as they choose an independent variable (the element that we change).  These could include length of wings, stiffness of paper, number of paperclips, etc. Collect suggestions from students and choose (as a group) which one(s) to test.

Select a dependent variable and establish how to measure it.  The modified helicopters could be measured in different ways.  For primary students, compare the original helicopter (which serves as the control) to the modified helicopter by dropping both at the same time. Older students could time their helicopters, or count the number of spins by attaching flagging tape to the paperclip at the helicopter’s base. To count the spins, students would count how many times the flagging tape has wound around the helicopter.

Ask Questions for a more open inquiry:

If students are more experienced with inquiry, they may pose their own questions to explore.  Help students form their own question for investigation (ones that can be answered with an experiment) with starters such as:  “What might happen if…” or include the phrase “does the____ make a difference?” or “How does ____ affect ____ ?”

  1. Ask:  What can we change on the helicopters? (eg. length of wings, width of wings, number of paperclips, etc.) (Independent Variables)
  2. Ask:  What do you think we might see? (eg. speed of fall, number of spins, etc.) (Dependent Variables)

Experiment and Observe

  1. Have students choose & record a variable to change.
    1. Predict outcome (“What do you think will happen?”)Students may share with a partner what they think will happen or they can draw a picture.
    2. Example:  “If we _____________, then the helicopter will ___________.”
  2. Observe & record Results. Students may draw pictures of their observations. Students repeat each experiment a few times to avoid anomalies.


  1. Ask the students: “Was the result what you predicted?” Do the students have more questions?  Repeat the process!


  1. Have students demonstrate their helicopters and share the changes they made. Ask:  What have you learned about the helicopter?  What questions do you have now?


  • Have students modify their helicopters to meet specific targets, i.e. Build a helicopter that will take 2 minutes to fall from the ground from a height of 3 metres.

Other Resources

Science World | Paper Helicopter Template