Flight was a topic our writer Barbara Ryan enjoyed teaching. "We got really involved – twice I invited Patrick Monro (inventor and flight enthusiast) to come and do a whole-school session on flight (see the article Hang-gliders). Patrick arrived with his hang-glider simulator and flight equipment."

One time, he flew over the school in his hang-glider, and another time he put Barb (the teacher) into the air using a parachute (attached to Barb) with her entire class pulling her along on a rope. He entertained the classes with interesting accounts of early flight history and his own exciting experiences of hang-gliding. He also explained simple concepts of flight. The students loved it.

Lots of teachers love to teach flight, but research has shown that few primary teachers have science backgrounds and are not confident teaching science. Barb decided to develop a collection of flight resources with the activities teachers and students love and that also included science ideas and concepts about flight specifically for primary teachers, who didn’t have the background knowledge.

Science ideas and concepts

To bring together some science ideas and concepts, Barb contacted a number of scientists and flight enthusiasts. It was then that she discovered that there were differing opinions about what flight actually was and what was involved. This has been reflected in our resources – mainly by leaving the definition of flight open, although various views are expressed. Also, recently there have been some discussions about some science concepts such as the Bernoulli principle concerning how lift is generated. What has been taught in schools (mostly secondary) and some material in school textbooks are now considered misconceptions. This is also explored.

Some of the science ideas reflected in our resources concern principles of flight, what causes lift, wing loading and wing aspect ratio (both relating to flight capabilities of planes and birds) and some science ideas specifically relating to birds’ flight.

New Zealand research

While reviewing current research in New Zealand related to flight, Barb came across Phil Battley and Jesse Conklin from Massey University who were tracking the long-distance flights of godwits. Their work sounded fascinating, so Barb decided to diversify from manufactured flight objects such as planes and hang-gliders to include nature’s flight – that of birds.

Student activities

The student activity What flies? is designed to make students think about flight and the commonalities of things that fly. This activity is open ended in that there is no definitive definition of flight. Students consider what flight is through various viewpoints and their own observations. They consider what might be needed for flight to occur. Other activities include making aerofoils and paper planes (paper plane competitions are always a hit), kites and gliders.

Some of Barb's early teaching experiences with flight included making gliders from scratch. She included the student activity Making a glider because, although it took some time, the students were able to make an aerofoil, which increased their understanding of what an aerofoil was. They learned a few skills in the process such as using a craft knife, sand papering and working carefully and finely. It turned into a few relaxing Friday afternoon sessions where the class worked on one thing at a time until they were finished.

Flying them was the reward.

The student activity Tracking E7 relates to the New Zealand research and explores the satellite tracking of a godwit called E7. An ethics section to this activity looks at whether scientists should be using satellite-tracking devices on migratory birds. The student activity Birds and planes brings nature and manufactured flyers together. Some science ideas are explored that affect flight capabilities of both birds and planes. An interactive, Wings for flight, is used to compare birds and planes and look at similarities.

Finally, an activity is included that explores future flight. This gives students the opportunity to consider historical flight (using the timeline A history of flight), what the trends have been in flight development, what caused these trends and what might happen in the future.

    Published 28 October 2011