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NSW Syllabuses

STEM Stage 3 - Activity 3


Description of activity

Students investigate different aspects of aerodynamics and share their knowledge to design and create paper planes.

This activity will take approximately two hours:

  • 30 minutes for initial testing and measurements
  • 1 hour for research, design and testing
  • 30 minutes for competition, gathering results and reflection


Students are able to accurately measure length in metres and centimetres, and time in seconds. They will use knowledge based on students’ studies of forces in Stages 1 and 2. Students investigate flight by experimenting with the design of several paper planes. They select the best paper plane, based on their results, to conduct further testing, and determine what makes a plane fly. Students review what can be changed to improve the flight capabilities of their paper plane.



ST3-5WT plans and implements a design process, selecting a range of tools, equipment, materials and techniques to produce solutions that address the design criteria and identified constraints
ST3-4WS investigates by posing questions, including testable questions, making predictions and gathering data to draw evidence-based conclusions and develop explanations
MA3-2WM selects and applies appropriate problem-solving strategies, including the use of digital technologies, in undertaking investigations
MA3-3WM gives a valid reason for supporting one possible solution over another

Knowledge and understanding

MA3-9MG selects and uses the appropriate unit and device to measure lengths and distances, calculates perimeters, and converts between units of length
MA3-16MG measures and constructs angles, and applies angle relationships to find unknown angles



  • Plastic drinking straws, balloons, thick paper or cardboard, clear sticky tape, glue, paperclips, scissors
  • Ruler, tape measure and cones to mark distance
  • Stopwatch
  • Completed examples and templates of paper plane designs

Work, health and safety

Check relevant Work, health and safety guidelines.

Evidence of work for assessment purposes

  • Notes concerning aerodynamics, such as factors affecting:
    • Lift
    • Weight
    • Thrust and
    • Drag
  • Labelled diagram showing the development of the paper plane design
  • Instructions describing how to construct the paper plane
  • Table of data showing results of flight trials

STEM teaching and learning activities

  • Students experiment by building and testing several types of paper planes.
  • Students measure the length and/or time of the flight. Testing must be repeated, and the results recorded in a table.
  • Calculate the average distance travelled.
  • Students select the best paper plane based on their results and conduct further testing to determine factors affecting flight and what can be changed to improve the flight characteristics of their paper plane.
  • Student investigations incorporate changes to their paper plane design. They will predict how changes will affect its flight. To maintain the integrity of the experiment and results, students change only one variable at a time. Students record the changes and record the results in a table.
    • Activities related to lift – as lift refers to the force that pushes a plane upward, students will need to develop an understanding of the purpose and function of the plane's wings. Students will make changes to the shape of the paper plane’s wings.
    • Activities related to weight – students add weights to their paper plane. This can be achieved by making the plane out of different materials such as thicker cardboard/paper or including items such as paperclips.
    • Activities related to thrust – thrust is the force that pushes a plane forward. In flight, thrust is usually produced by propellers or jet engines. Students are provided with straws and balloons that can be attached to the paper plane in order to simulate thrust. The angle of the forward propulsion may also be investigated.
    • Activity related to drag – students manipulate the size of the wings to demonstrate how drag caused by air resistance slows the descent of the plane. Gravity will pull the paper plane earthward while the air trapped by the wings provides an upward resisting force (drag) on the plane. Students may wish to experiment by making the ends of the wings oval shaped or by adding wing tips that stick up from the end of the wing in order to reduce drag.
  • Students combine information learned about the four basic forces affecting flight: lift, weight, thrust and drag. They will create the most effective and efficient paper plane(s) based on their data and research, including analysis of their results. Students will present their prototype(s) of paper plane(s) to be entered into a competition. There may be two categories of winner:
  • the paper plane that flies the farthest
  • the paper plane that stays in the air the longest.

Vocabulary list

Air resistance – a contact force caused by the friction of air particles against objects moving through the air. This often causes ‘drag’
Fuselage – the main body of an aircraft
Gravity – a force that makes matter clump together into planets, moons and stars and draws objects towards the centre of these bodies
Lift – the force that directly opposes the weight of an aircraft and holds it in the air
Propulsion – a force that moves an object forward. This provides ‘thrust’

Key inquiry questions

How can results be compared?
Results can only be compared if they are obtained through a fair test. A fair test is an investigation in which only ONE variable (the independent variable) is changed and all other conditions (controlled variables) are kept the same; what is measured or observed is referred to as the ‘dependent variable’. For example, if you wish to measure how far a plane flies (dependent variable) by testing a number of different designs (independent variable) then the planes should be launched in the same way and exposed to the same wind conditions (controlled variables). There could be many controlled variables and it is important to keep those conditions the same as much as possible.

Are results reliable?
The most simple way to ensure that results are reliable (not just a one-off fluke) is to repeat the experiment several times and take the average of the results, eg launch a plane five times and measure the distance travelled by it. Average the distance flown and compare that result with the average distance flown by a different design.

Why record results in a table?
Tables make it easy to see relevant results. It is important that relevant headings, showing units of measurement, are placed at the top of each column. Thus the body of the table contains only numbers or short descriptions.

Support resources

Teacher references

Student resources

Adjustments for the diversity of learners

Investigate the development of flight in Australia through the following organisations in relation to the changes in Australian society and its connections to the world. HT3-3; GE3-2

  • Early Australian aviation
  • Royal Flying Doctor Service
  • Qantas


By completing this STEM activity, your students have been provided with opportunities to develop a design process, engineer and test a product to solve problems and gain experience of the scientific method as it is practised. Students will refine these skills through their study of Science in Stages 4, 5 and 6 and in Technology (Mandatory) Stage 4.