Day 1: Parachute Project Introduction

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SWBAT use the Engineering Method to construct a parachute.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will use the Engineering Method to generate multiple parachute plans on paper that will safely transport a washer to a targeted area on the ground.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEMvery clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will develop an understanding of gravity while focusing heavily on the 5th Grade Engineering and Design standards. In the first few lessons students will explore the relationships between gravity, weight, and mass. Then, students will apply their understanding of gravity to engineer and design parachutes and roller coasters.   

Summary of Lesson

Today, I will open the lesson by showing students a sky diving video. Student science teams will then begin the engineering process by asking questions, researching parachutes, and planning their parachute designs. At the end of the lesson, students will have at least one parachute design to construct and test tomorrow. 

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will address the following NGSS Standard(s): 

5-PS2-1. Support an argument that the gravitational force exerted by Earth on objects is directed down.  

3-5-ETS1-1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

3-5-ETS1-2. Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

3-5-ETS1-3.  Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in Science & Engineering Practices 2 and 8. 

Science & Engineering Practice 2: Developing and Using Models - Students will be designing models of parachutes by constructing diagrams and taking into consideration constraints on materials.

Science & Engineering Practice 8: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information - Students will read and comprehend a text on parachutes in order to obtain ideas and to construct researach-based parachute designs on their own.

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate content across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on Crosscutting Concept 4. 

Crosscutting Concept 4: Systems and System Models - Students will make an explicit model of a parachute system using the available materials. They will also determine which components are most important in the parachute system. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the Disciplinary Core Ideas:

PS2.B. Types of Interactions: The gravitational force of Earth acting on an object near Earth’s surface pulls that object toward the planet’s center. (5-PS2-1)

ETS1.A. Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems: Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account. (3-5-ETS1-1)

ETS1.B. Developing Possible Solutions: Research on a problem should be carried out before beginning to design a solution.  Testing a solution involves investigating how well it performs under a range of likely conditions. (3-5-ETS1-S2) At whatever stage, communicating with peers about proposed solutions is an important part of the design process, and shared ideas can lead to improved designs. (3-5-ETS1-2) Tests are often designed to identify failure points or difficulties, which suggest the elements of the design that need to be improved. (3-5-ETS1-3)

ETS1.C. Optimizing the Design Solution: Different solutions need to be tested in order to determine which of them best solves the problem, given the criteria and the constraints. (3-5-ETS1-3)

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


10 minutes

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I introduce today's learning goal and ask students to write the goal at the top of a new page in their science journals: I can use the Engineering Method to construct a parachute. I explain: During the past couple of lessons, we focused on using the Scientific Method. Today, we are going to be using the Engineering Method. Hmm... I wonder what the difference is! You'll find out soon! 


I want to inspire interest in today's lesson and capitalize on student curiosity, so I pose an authentic problem: Yesterday, we dropped a sheet of paper and a sheet of paper crumpled up in a ball from the same height. What happened? Students offer, "The sheet of paper fell at a slower rate." "The paper ball hit the floor first."

I wonder why they didn't hit the floor at the same time. Students recall their research on air resistance and explain, "The piece of paper catches more air as it falls. The crumpled ball has less air resistance because it is more aerodynamic." 

I provide students with more background information on air resistance to build interest and student investment. This video seems to be the perfect sag way into the upcoming engineering project: 


As a class, we discuss the importance of a sky diver having a parachute. Students reiterate key points in the video: The force of gravity is always pulling us to the center of the Earth. When the parachute opens, air resistance counteracts the force of gravity. This slows the rate at which the sky diver is being pulled toward the ground. The parachute, alongside of air resistance allows for sky divers to land safely. 


50 minutes

Engineering Process

I refer to the The Engineering Method posters on our science wall. I purposefully color-coordinated these posters with The Scientific Method posters previously introduced. This way, students can begin to see the similarities and differences between both methods. This is an important part of "sense making." During today's lesson, I line up the posters on the front white board to help students make the connections: Lining up Posters.

As you become engineers (scientists that design and build solutions) today, we need to understand the process that a parachute engineer uses to construct a new design. When scientists use the Scientific Method, they perform investigations to find the answer to a question. However, when engineers use the Engineering Method, they use the design process to create a solution to problem

I create a quick comparison on the board to further support students: Scientists vs Engineers.

Defining the Problem

Students are excited and ready to see what's next! I explain: Today, you will be working with your science teams to engineer parachutes. You will be designing and building a parachute that will safely transport a washer (which will be your sky diver) to land on a Target.

Let's begin with the first step of the Engineering Process, defining the problem. I model how to write "Define the Problem" in red (same color as the poster) under the goal in student journals: Define the Problem.

Why is a parachute so important to a sky diver? Students recall, "It helps the sky diver land safely," "It slows the person's fall," "It helps the sky diver slow the rate he is falling toward the ground, "It works against gravity." Good! Similar to sky diving in the real world, your overall goal as a parachute engineer is to slow the rate of descent (or the rate in which sky diver is falling) as much as possible. The class then decides that the problem needing solved is: Sky divers need a safe way to fall to Earth.

Do Background Research

The next step to the engineering process is to do background research! It is often helpful to learn more about parachutes as you begin to imagine what your parachute could look like. Again, I show students how to create a heading to match the step in the Engineering Process in student journals: Define the Problem & Background Research.

To engage students in Crosscutting Concept 4 (Systems and System Models), I project and trace The Parachute System to construct the following poster: Parachute System Poster Before. At this time, I invite students to join me on the front carpet and take notes as I explain the system. I begin by explaining that a system is a group of parts, working together to perform a function. We then discuss some of the systems around the room (a swivel chair and stapler). I explain that the parts within a system each have a function (or job) that helps the whole system work. 

I return to the Parachute System poster and, with student input, add the function of each of the following parts: canopy, suspension lines, and harness. Here's what the poster looked like afterwards: Parachute System Poster After.

For the next 20 minutes, I'd like for you and your team to read a text called Playing with Parachutes (found at this link)Students add information to their notes under the Background Research heading. 

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin reading, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

  1. What patterns have you noticed? 
  2. Why do you suppose ____? 
  3. What have you found so far? 
  4. Has your thinking changed? 
  5. What evidence do you have? 
  6. How did you decide _____?
  7. Has your thinking changed? 
  8. What conclusion can you draw about ____?
  9. What are the most important parts in your parachute system?

Student Conferences

During this conference, I encourage students to take on the role of an actual engineer by looking for information that is pertinent to constructing parachutes: Researching with a Purpose.

I love listening to this student compare the types of parachutes as she already begins making decisions about her own design: Comparing Types of Parachutes.

Criteria for Success 

Now, we're ready for the next step, specify criteria for success and constraints. I model how to make the heading in student journals: Specifying Criteria & Constraints.

I define criteria: expectations for a successful design. Lets discuss the criteria for this parachute design. One by one, I went over each of the following expectations:

  • Needs to land safely on the Target
  • Needs to drop from 2 meters (Later, we'll change this to 1.5 m or 150 cm as students weren't tall enough!)
  • Drop as slow as possible (I purposefully didn't place any time limits on this as I want students to keep pushing themselves to find more and more ways to slow the parachute.)
  • The parachute has to stay together. (The students came up with this one.)



Prior to today's lesson, I place Parachute Supplies for each group in plastic shoe boxes: Team Boxes. I print labels for each box Team Labels so that students can quickly locate the same box each day. I'll leave these labels on the boxes for future projects as well. 

When we talk about constraints, we are referring to your limitations as an engineer. Today, you'll be limited to the materials inside one of these plastic boxes. In a moment, you'll get to go through all of your supplies and make a list. 

Without talking, please decide who is a number 1, 2, or 3 in your group. Hold up your numbers. In no time, groups were ready. I then randomly ask #2 students to grab a box from the counter. 

Here's an example of a team going through their box: Recording Supplies.

Final Discussion

After about 10 minutes, we discuss the supplies as a class: 

  • 5 napkins
  • 6 straws
  • 2 pieces of paper (11"x8.5")
  • string (about 1 yd.)
  • 1 plastic cup
  • 5 paper clips
  • 6 index cards
  • plastic shopping bag
  • 2 coffee filters
  • masking tape (about 1 ft. placed on top of box)
  • Target
  • a washer


Students can't wait to begin the design process tomorrow!