MiddleSchoolPortal/Aerodynamic: Applications of Force and Flow

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Aerodynamics: Applications of Force and Flow - Introduction

From the smallest insect to the largest aircraft, anything that flies obeys the same aerodynamic principles. If we break the word apart, aerodynamics is "air in motion." It's all about the movement of air and other gaseous fluids and the ways in which forces act upon bodies in motion relative to these fluids.



We've chosen what we think are outstanding resources from the Middle School Portal to help you teach the basics of aerodynamics and explain how those principles relate to technology and design. The Background Information resources can bring teachers up to speed and provide additional reading for students. In the Lessons and Activities section, we offer opportunities for students to use their critical thinking skills and creativity as they design, test, and redesign gliders, rockets, and more.

Although there is a great deal of historical information about aerodynamics that could be discussed here, we purposely narrowed the stream of resources to those that encourage students to experiment with technological design and function. Given these learning experiences, student should be prepared to articulate preferences in vehicle design and understand how the principles of aerodynamics influence vehicle performance.

Background Information

The flow of air over a body is not visible. We must use models to demonstrate how materials and air interact. Modeling is a common theme in science. It's how scientists communicate scientific theories in tangible, simplified ways. As science educators we must include discussions of the value of and shortcomings of models with our students. The NSDL Strand Map Service provides guidance. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. An image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Models map appears below. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals. Models is one of five common themes for which Science Literacy Maps exist. See Common Themesfor links to the other four maps.

Quick: Explain how an airplane stays airborne. Are you able to immediately articulate the nuances of drag and lift, not to mention thrust? We can all use a review of the fundamentals of aerodynamics. Start with the instructor's text featured below to reacquaint yourself with air pressure, fluid dynamics, Bernoulli's principle, and more.

The additional resources provide background reading for students and can be used to help explain scientific principles that are the foundation for many innovations in aeronautics. Many of the student resources offer activities that teachers may want to use in class.

For Teachers

Fundamentals of flight, instructor's text Supplement your own knowledge of aerodynamics as it relates to flight with this online text. Explore gliding flight through examples of plants, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. True flight is exemplified in nature by insects, birds, and bats. Also covered are specific principles such as aeronautics, movement of fluids, hydrodynamics, aerodynamics, measurements, and properties of air moving over objects.

For Students

Fundamentals of flight, intermediate text Here's the student version of Fundamentals of Flight (see above). Some students may prefer to follow the advanced text. MSP full record for intermediate text and advanced text

Aerodynamics: What Causes Lift? Bernoulli's principle, an important principle of fluid dynamics, is often used to explain what causes lift, the upward force that keeps an airplane or glider in flight. This media-enhanced essay from the NOVA Web site presents an additional explanation of lift, based on Newton's third law of motion, which holds that in order to produce lift a wing must push air down.

Beginner’s guide to aerodynamics In this broad overview of aerodynamics, each link takes students to self-paced targets of learning with diagrams that depict how aerodynamics affects objects such as airliners, model rockets, and kites. There is an explanation of Newton’s equations of motion and a review of properties in the atmosphere that influence aerodynamics. Teachers may want to review this site and use some of the activities with students. Please note that some of the links feature mathematical formulas that may be too complex for middle school students.

Beginner’s guide to model rockets In this comprehensive guide, students can investigate the design and flight of rockets, the forces acting on rockets, and the gas properties that affect them. Activities provide practice questions and experiments. In one experiment, students demonstrate rocket flight by making paper rockets and propelling them with air blown through a straw.

Three forces on a glider Because a glider has no engine, it depends on the forces of lift, drag, and weight, which are explained here. Students can also read about how a glider generates speed and stays aloft in the air for extended periods of time.

How things fly Can't take a class trip to Washington, D.C.? Students can enjoy a virtual tour of the flight exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum by clicking on the floor plan. Or they can follow the How Do Things Fly icon to see how airplanes, hot-air balloons, and the space shuttle lift into the air and maintain flight. Students can also explore the science behind how a wing works and how lift is produced, the nature of buoyancy, and laws associated with space travel. Digital pictures of the physical exhibits are provided as well, and a Resource Center link offers reading recommendations and activities.

Lessons and Activities

The technology of aerodynamics impacts our daily lives. Start with some of the simple experiments in the resources below to make the fundamentals of aerodynamics come alive for your students. The hands-on projects further connect aerodynamics principles to tangible examples and products. Students can design, construct, and test (and redesign and retest!) prototypes of rockets, windmills, gliders, and compressed air vehicles.

How can you go eighty miles per hour on a bicycle? Have your students look at this brief segment about an aerodynamic bicycle that reaches speeds equal to that of automobiles. It's a good opportunity to introduce a discussion of drag.

Glider Boy Your students will enjoy watching this video segment of 12-year-old Jesse, the designer of dozens of gliders. Watch as he shows you some of his gliders and explains how they fly. Viewing this as a class can get students excited about building their own gliders.

How to Levitate a Ping Pong Ball with a Hair Dryer Grab a hair dryer, some Ping Pong balls, and a variety of cardboard tubes. This simple experiment introduces students to air pressure.

Aerodynamics in sports equipment Ask your students that age-old question: Why do golf balls have dimples? Then find the answer on this site and explore how aerodynamics connects to sports such as baseball, tennis, track and field, car racing, and swimming.


Students build a paper glider that is a replica of the first plane to break the sound barrier, the X-1. This NASA web site provides a history of the aircraft, blackline master and assembly instructions for the glider, and suggestions for experiments that explore the principles of flight. Aerodynamics is just one aspect of additional activities in which students locate the center of gravity, note changes in the glider's flight with different weight loads, and test the airplane for maximum speed, distance, and flight time. Students can also investigate how pitch, roll, yaw, and stalls are related to controlling flight.

The X-1 paper glider kit Students build a paper glider that is a replica of the first plane to break the sound barrier, the X-1. This NASA web site provides a history of the aircraft, blackline master and assembly instructions for the glider, and suggestions for experiments that explore the principles of flight. Aerodynamics is just one aspect of additional activities in which students locate the center of gravity, note changes in the glider's flight with different weight loads, and test the airplane for maximum speed, distance, and flight time. Students can also investigate how pitch, roll, yaw, and stalls are related to controlling flight.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities. Visit the virtual learning experience on Force & Motion.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website to learn more about a variety of science-related careers (click on the Science link at the bottom of the home page).

ITEA Standards

Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology (STL) was developed by the International Technology Education Association's Technology for All Americans Project in 2000. STL articulates the necessary content to be taught in K–12 laboratory-classrooms to empower all students to develop technological literacy. Technological literacy is the ability to use, manage, understand, and assess technology. The standards were constructed around a cognitive base and a "learning by doing" activity base, and they also include assessment checkpoints at specific grade levels (K–2, 3–5, 6–8, and 9–12).

For the benefit of curriculum planning and lesson development, the resources and information offered here are aligned with the following ITEA Standards for Technological Literacy:

Standard 1: Students will develop an understanding of the characteristics and scope of technology. F. New products and systems can be developed to solve problems or to help do things that could not be done without the help of technology.

Standard 3: Students will develop an understanding of the relationships among technologies and the connections between technology and other fields of study. F. Knowledge gained from other fields of study has a direct effect on the development of technological products and systems.

Standard 11: Students will develop an understanding of the ability to apply the design process. H. Apply a design process to solve problems in and beyond the laboratory-classroom. J. Make two-dimensional and three-dimensional representations of the designed solution. K. Test and evaluate the design in relation to pre-established requirements, such as criteria and constraints, and refine as needed.

Standard 18: Students will develop abilities to select and use transportation technologies. G. Transportation vehicles are made up of subsystems, such as structural, propulsion, suspension, guidance, control, and support that must function together for a system to work effectively.

Author and Copyright

Quentin Briggs, formerly of Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Science and Mathematics Education, Instructional Resources. He had nine years of technology teaching experience at the middle school level and four years experience as an industry professional in the area of training and development.

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Copyright March 2005 - The Ohio State University. Last updated September 19, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0424671 and since September 1, 2009 Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.