Day 2: Engineering Parachutes

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SWBAT use the Engineering Method to construct parachutes.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will construct and test a parachute prototype 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 discussing the importance of identifying failures points when engineering a solution to a problem. Student science teams will then begin to construct and test their parachute designs by utilizing failure points to improve their designs. Tomorrow, students will actually document some of their failure points and improvements. 

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. 

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

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!  


40 minutes

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I review the learning goal from yesterday's lesson, Engineering Parachutes Day 1: I can use the Engineering Method to construct a parachute.

Can anyone tell me how air resistance impacts falling objects? Students offer, "It's when a parachute opens up and catches air." "The air resistance slows the sky diver down." "It works against the force of gravity."

And what is the purpose of using the Engineering Method? Students refer to the The Engineering Method posters displayed on our science wall to recall, "It's when engineers use the design process to create solutions to problems."

We review the problem presented yesterday: Sky divers need a safe way to fall to Earth.

Yesterday, you and your team researched parachutes and documented the criteria for success as well as the constraints of this engineering challenge. Let's go over the criteria for success: 

  • 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.)


We also review the material constraints of this engineering challenge: 

  • 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



Today's lesson is all about constructing a design and using failure points to make improvements to the parachute prototype. I want students to see how important it is to share and test prototypes, so I use this video clip, found at PBS Learning Media. In this video, students model how failure is a part of the engineering process. After watching the video, we discuss how failures are learning opportunities that help lead to improvements. 

The Engineering Process

Yesterday, we began using The Engineering Method to construct a parachute. First, students defined the problem, then they completed background research, and finally, students examined the criteria for success & constraints: Define the Problem & Background Research & Specifying Criteria & Constraints. Today, students will continue recording the next three steps of this process in their science journals: Documenting the Engineering Process.

Generating & Comparing Multiple Solutions

Today, you get to move on to the planning stage of the engineering process! 

I pass out a sheet of white copy paper to each student. I want to make sure students are able to get their ideas down on paper before collaborating as a team. This way, each student will be sure to have input! I ask students to take into consideration the available materials, their research, and the steps they will take to make the parachute in order to construct a diagram of a parachute plan on paper. Lastly, I ask students to label all of the parts in their parachute systems to make them more precise (string, washer, parachute canopy). 

As students finish their designs, I ask them to turn and share their designs with their teams. I encourage students to use the following prompts as they discuss each design:

  • Can you tell me more about this...?
  • I respectfully disagree with...
  • I like how you...


Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin designing and collaborating, 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, Collaborating Students, the team of students share their designs with each other. I encourage the students to comment on the designs to transform a "share time" into a collaborative process where ideas are exchanged.

Student Work

Here are a few examples of student parachute designs: 


30 minutes

Building & Testing the Prototype

Referring to The Engineering Method posters, I explain: The next steps in the Engineering process is to build a model or prototype and test the prototype to identify failure points in order to improve the design. 

First, you'll work together with your group to construct a parachute prototype. Then, you'll begin testing your model. Today, I really want you to begin focusing on specific failure points and improvements that you can make to your design... because as you know, failure is an important part of the engineering process! 

What are some failure points that you might encounter today? (didn't hit target, fell too quickly, parachute closed, string became unattached, washer fell off, too heavy, too light, too heavy)

What are some improvements that you might make to your design when you encounter some of these failure points? (lengthen the suspension lines, make the canopy smaller/larger, add materials, take away materials, tighten knots)

Getting Started

Students grab the same team box as yesterday and begin taking their materials out. I pass out two meter sticks, a stop watch, and a Target to each team. Students can't wait to begin building and testing their parachutes prototypes! 

Student Conferences

What I love most about the engineering process is that students are able to test while they are building: Testing While Building. For example, this group wanted to test different ways to drop the coffee filter (right-side up or upside down). I think that this is exactly what a team of engineers would do in the real world! 

I also loved watching this team use their understanding of air resistance to construct their parachute: Using Research to Construct Prototype.