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STEM Drop-In Friday: Iteration With Paper Helicopters

STEM Drop-In Friday: Iteration With Paper Helicopters
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STEM Drop-In

One of the things I like to do in my classroom is what I like call STEM Drop-In lessons. Periodically I come up with a mini project for the kids to do that will teach an engineering concept in a single class period while spending little to no money. The STEM Drop-In uses inexpensive materials, and allows my students a great deal of exploration in their learning.  I also try to pick projects that are expandable, and easy to customize so I can possibly back up what they happen to be working on in their other classes. In this particular case I am looking for my students to work on three separate concepts. First, they are exploring the engineering design concept of iteration. Second, this STEM Drop-In has them experientially research the science & technology of flight. Third, this project has them working with data. This quick and cheap lesson not only hits every STEM subject, but also fulfills three of four adolescent needs with fun, competency, and autonomy. Here we go!

Materials Needed:

  • This picture.
  • Paperclips.
  • Scissors.
  • Stop Watches (Optional).
  • Paper, Pencils, and Masking Tape.


What to Teach:

With this lesson you are leveraging the engineering concept of Iteration to teach science content in the form of flight science, and math content in the use of data. A quick aside: For those of you who have been following my posts on rockets or robots, you will note that I try to fit data into everything I do in the classroom. I do so because we all live in a world that is absolutely awash in data. Every move you make, every click you take, every post you write, and every status update you “like” generates data. In the work place of the future the ability to use, and analyze data will be a skill in high demand. Let’s all work give our students as many future advantages as possible. They deserve it!

How to Teach this STEM Drop-In:

You will start by following the link above, and printing out enough copies of the picture to give your students each 2 sheets. Two sheets will give them templates enough for 6 Helicopters. You may also want to pass out a couple of sheets of blank copy paper, in case students wish to iterate with complete autonomy.

The first iteration is your control, or baseline prototype. You will have the students cut along the solid lines, and fold along the dotted ones. They will then place a paper clip on the bottom, hold the helicopter at shoulder level, and drop it. If you are using stop watches they should time how long it takes for the helicopter to hit the floor, and write that number down. Have the students compare each others times, and have a quick discussion about whether it is a fair test.

It certainly isn’t a fair test because students are different heights, and drop the helicopters differently. You now have the opportunity to introduce another engineering concept, which is the idea of what makes a fair test. If you are already teaching a robotics problem solving unit, or want to in the future this is a good opportunity to introduce a helicopter dropping robot challenge to your curriculum.

To expand the lesson discuss how data is measured and used, and talk about the baseline you’ve established with the first Helicopter. Be sure to have your students do at least three drops per iteration in order to get an average sample. You will want to make certain to stress that they will be presenting their findings to the class, and need to have data to back up what they discover.

The Experiment:

Now for the Autonomous Iteration. Have your students choose from the options below, and redesign their helicopter with that in mind. This is the appropriate time to talk about drag, lift, and aerodynamics with the students.

  • Can they make it fall slower?
  • How about make it fall faster?
  • Maybe, make it spin more?
  • Possibly, make it spin less?
  • What about make it behave unexpectedly?
  • Come up with an iteration concept or two on your own. Feel free to explore!


You can give them as few, or as many iterations on this concept as you would like. After you have allowed sufficient time for some good exploration, have your students present their findings to the group. They should have data to show that proves their results. That’s it. Just a quick little STEM drop in for when your students need a break from their normal classwork.

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