Pendulums, Paper Airplanes, and Wind Tunnels: A Study of Aerodynamics

We believe in honoring the history of the land we temporarily occupy. Bob Stanley was the first American to fly a jet plane…. There is a history of innovation here, of boldness. We embrace it.

Stanifesto, Stanley Marketplace, Home of OPENair Stapleton

Once a month, we partner with Hawkins Centers of Learning to offer Professional Development workshops to our faculty, graduate students, and the community-at-large.

Many of these are hosted at Boulder Journey School, some are held on the campuses of our partner schools, as a way to further our collaboration. The February, 2017 workshop was held at OPENair Stapleton – a brand new campus located inside an old airplane hangar. It was a fitting spot, as the content of the explorations were: Pendulums, Paper Airplanes, and Wind Tunnels: A Study of Aerodynamics.

We gathered in the OPENair Maker Studio with 3 sets of materials:

  • Pendulums
    • Pre-made pendulums
    • Stands and jars
    • A variety of strings
    • Sticks
    • Funnels
    • Washers
  • Paper Airplanes
    • Print-outs of patterns and instructions
    • A variety of paper weights
    • Scissors
    • Paper Clips
  • Wind Tunnel
    • A pre-made Wind Tunnel
    • Loose parts including paper, feathers, plastic, and more

Most of the workshops are structured to offer participants time and space to engage in each of the three phases of Messing About, as defined by David Hawkins.

We opened the evening with a discussion of aerodynamics (engaging in the square phase – the unpacking of theory). The word aerodynamics invited mixed emotions, ranging from panic to giddiness. Lindsay, a Denver-based teacher, shared that thinking of aerodynamics reminded her of her father and Girl Scout camp, while another teacher mentioned that the word itself made her stomach clench.

We read the definition of aerodynamics:

aerodynamics: noun

the science that studies the movement of gases and the way solid bodies,

such as aircraft, move through them

Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary

the study of the properties of moving air, and especially of the interaction between the air and solid bodies moving through it.

The Oxford American College Dictionary

Using the definition as our starting place, we developed initial questions to guide us before working with the materials (engaging in the triangle phase – a time for choosing a path and narrowing the focus). These questions were mostly vague – one of them asked simply, “What do I do with this stuff?”

As the teachers worked, they tracked new questions that were developing for them.

One group of teachers reflected on the evolution of their thoughts when working with the wind tunnel. When they first approached the materials, they wondered how they had been chosen – how would such heavy materials fly?

This initial question evolved into new questions:

  • What combinations of materials work well together?
  • How can we alter heavy materials to give them more air surface and lift?
giphy
When heavy plastics are combined with feathers, they gain enough surface area to achieve lift.
  • How can we alter the way the materials enter the wind tunnel to boost their lift?
Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 1.45.59 PM
Heavy materials that are put into the wind tunnel from the top interact in a different way than heavy materials that are put into the wind tunnel from the bottom. This inspired the question, “How do we distinguish between flying and falling?”

A group of teachers who focused their attention on the paper airplanes reflected that their ultimate goal had been performance.  They wanted to land as many airplanes as possible on the mezzanine.

giphy1

They developed systems for testing the different airplane designs.They reflected that they were able to begin developing systems because they had been offered time and space to mess about with materials and ideas, and wondered, “What systems would the children develop when offered similar time and space?”

The pendulum players reflected that as they entered into the work they were faced with so many variables. Through the workshop, they altered the materials in the cone (sand, paint, water, heavy bobs, etc.), the shape of the cone, the length of the string, the height of the string, the type of string. They realized, when offering pendulums in a classroom, they would need to pare down their choices and determine a variable for their focus. One teacher from the group reflected that although we tend to think of a strong environment as one that offers limitless possibilities, sometimes, “a well-designed environment is one that narrows the possibilities to support the investigation of one variable.”

Without having the time and space to play with pendulums and their many variables, the teachers reflected they would be intimidated, or clumsy, in offering them to children. Through their play, the teachers were able to make decisions about how to sharpen the focus for children.

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 2.17.55 PM
What materials flow smoothly from the pendulum to paint designs on the paper? What materials are well balanced inside the cone to come out smoothly enough to watch and slowly enough to sustain prolonged movement?

During our final reflections, one teacher noted that she had come to the experience tired from a day at work. She was not sure what to expect.

What she uncovered was that play, for her as well as for children, offered, “Joy, joy, joy.” 

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