Take Flight with S.T.E.M.


On December 17th, 1903, two gentlemen who were not professional scientists or engineers, first flew their invention that would change the world. Wilbur and Orville Wright flew their plane for only a short distance that day but they started an extraordinary journey for mankind. If you want your students to  understand perseverance, curiosity, and determination, make room in your December lesson plans to study flight and to celebrate the lives of the Wright brothers. They exemplify all that is important about STEM and provide a wonderful foundation for a theme that explores the principles of flight.

 Leonardo da Vinci, through his study of the structure of birds, sketched designs for a flying machine. This fascination continues to this day. Watching planes take-off at an airport conjures up visions of exotic far away places, excitement, and freedom. As common place as hopping on a plane to get somewhere is to everyone, most people don't understand how birds and planes can fly. Discussing and experimenting with the basics of flight have always been some of the most popular STEM activities among students. However, the principles of flight are not part of most elementary or middle school curriculum. Yet, with a little creativity, these lessons can be be integrated into a variety of topics.

Animal Adaptations

The study of how animals adapt to their environment is a focus of study across many science units. This is a perfect opportunity to compare the shape of various birds wings and relate them to the different types of jets and planes, and their corresponding wing shapes.  Different birds have different wing shapes depending on if they primarily glide through the air, if they need to take off quickly to escape predators, or if they need to have time to take a running start. Engineers have studied these wing shapes and used these models for their designs.  NASA has a wonderful series of lessons that can help your student explore this aspect of animal adaptations and how humans have copied them in their pursuit of flight.
NASA Wing Design Lesson


Air pressure is one of the topics during a study of weather. A typical activity is to have students blow across a single piece of paper. The paper rises because of the difference of air pressure above and below the paper. A logical next step is to relate this phenomena to flight and a discussion of the basic concepts of lift and drag.

Science Kids : Introduction to Flight and Air pressure

Plant Adaptations

Just as animals have a variety of adaptations to help them survive, plants do too. Odd as it sounds, a variety of plants reproduce though the use of seed pods that rotate through the air just like a helicopter rotors do. While exploring flight, be sure to include the exploration of helicopters. There are lessons to show students how to fold a piece of paper so that it will rotate like a helicopter rotor. Toss it into the air and watch how it rotates as it falls back to the ground. During the study of plants and seed dispersal , bring in examples of the pods for students to explore.

STEM and Soaring with Helicopters

Flight and Language Arts
Integrating STEM into language arts is one of our favorite ways to   enrich our curriculum. Students can learn the basics of how to write a research paper while learning the basics of flight . Every program of students include biography units. Designing, building and improving on airplanes is a logical extension while studying the lives of Leonardo Da Vinci, the Wright brothers, or other titans of flight. 

Engineering Day

Another way to integrate flight into the curriculum is to have an airplane challenge as part of an Engineering Day or STEM Night. Student love to create paper airplanes and improve upon their ideas as they try to have their airplane fly further than their classmate. Check out our Great Paper Airplane Challenge. It has everything you need, including categories and certificates for winners, to run a as successful paper airplane challenge


There are many great resources available to help you integrate flight into your curriculum. The Smithsonian Museum has developed a series of lessons called "How Things Fly" and has a series of lessons to teach the basic principles of flight. We also have at our TpT store a discounted bundle of different types of STEM flight challenges.

Year after year, study units that incorporate flight and give students the opportunity to create planes, helicopters, gliders, and parachutes continue to be our students favorite lessons. More than just fun, however, it gives students opportunities to experiment with sometimes hard to imagine science concepts. By combining the exploration of the history of flight with hands on STEM activities, you will engage your students in a wonderful learning experience.

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