Slow It Down (Student Instruction)

Students will design an aircraft that uses drag to land as slowly as possible onto a target.

Joan Higginbotham, Electrical Engineer


STEM careers

Grade level


Per Person Team:

  • 5 sheets of paper (8.5×11 inch)
  • 1 index card (3×5 inch)
  • 4 paper clips
  • Scotch tape
  • Scissors
  • Sketch book
  • Timer


When engineers design parachutes or hot air balloons, they use air resistance, also known as drag, to slow down the descent in order to land gently in a specific location.

  1. Identify the Problem
    • The most critical step of any engineering challenge is to understand the problem you are trying to solve.
    • How can you design an aircraft that uses drag to land as slowly as possible onto a target?
    • Here are the specs:
      • Your aircraft must be dropped from a height of at least six feet.
      • It must land within the target area that you mark on the floor.
        • A reasonable target is a circle of 36-inch diameter, but you can change the size to make it more or less challenging.
  2. Brainstorm Designs
    • What do objects that fall gently and relatively slowly have in common? Think about feathers, maple seeds or balloons – are there clues in their shape or weight?
    • Experiment with your materials and maybe sketch some ideas to help determine your best design for building.
    • Ask yourself:
      • How might you fold your paper to slow its fall? How do the locations of the paper folds make a difference?
      • Do you think your aircraft would drop more slowly or quickly if it is designed to spin? Try it out!
      • Can you use paper clips to stabilize the falling aircraft’s pathway into the target?
  3. Build and Test Your Design
    • When you start building your aircraft, you can test it along the way by dropping it from lower heights.
    • When you’re ready for the 6-foot drop, get a timer and take a few test flights.
      • Time each fall and note how close to the target your aircraft falls.
  4. Make Changes and Try Again
    • Did your aircraft fall like you thought it would? Are there improvements you can make to increase the amount of time it takes?
    • Redesign your aircraft and test again!
  5. Share Your Results with a teacher, parent/guardian, or DiscoverE
    • Share photos or a video of your aircraft in action!
    • Send to DiscoverE at or post on Instagram/Twitter using the hashtag #DiscoverEChallenge and tag us @DiscoverEOrg


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