Introduction: Writing and Windtubes!

About: Educator, maker, librarian, and Director of Community and Instigator of fun at Makey Makey! I love making and creating all kinds of stuff, but am particularly obsessed with circuits and physical computing!

Many summers ago, Aaron, my co-author in life, made our kids a wind tunnel so we could play and tinker with flying things during the heat of Texas summer. We’d seen a few huge versions of this concept at places like the Perot museum, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, and Austin’s own, The Thinkery. I believe Aaron began building the wind tunnel with these plans from the Tinkering Studio. It’s basically a cheap fan, some embroidery hoops, and plastic for poster frames that he ordered here.

Wind Tube build instructions from Tinkering Studio.

That summer, our kids flew paper objects, sponges, and beachballs. They crumbled paper, made cones, and tried all manner of things. We brought the wind tunnel to a makerspace we were running at a local conference. The adults we met didn’t seem as interested in the wind tunnel as the young kids who enjoyed exploring properties of fast flying materials. Until I noticed Josh Burker re-iterating flight designs with a multitude of materials, I was unsure how to get adults interested in this quick prototyping tool. Josh’s wind tunnel explorations focused on slowing down an object, getting the design to float in the wind tunnel, and tinkering with design materials. Over the years, I watched him continually testing materials and trying new concepts.

Step 1: Teaching Perseverance and Reiterative Design

Fast forward to my time working in an elementary school. I knew I wanted to bring the wind tube in for my students, tie it literature, AND teach my student the iterative design process. I’d found a lot of great books about flying to share with my students (Rosie Revere,Engineer being one of my favorite books on flight and perseverance!)

As I thought about the wind tunnel activity, I realized that I wanted to scaffold the flight explorations by grade level. Another consideration was how could I keep the maker mania low so that kids could be wowed by the wind tunnel, BUT still focus on building and rebuilding flying thingamajigs. Oftentimes, the excitement of shooting something up the wind tunnel overpowers the experience of design and personal enjoyment of test flights. I wanted kids to focus on perseverance and continually creating different iterations of flying things, not just flinging things into the tunnel (plus, I wanted each student to experience the joy of their own flying thingamajig taking flight!) So I came up with a few simple rules to use with all of my elementary classes.

  • Only one prototype in the wind tunnel at a time.
  • Wait patiently at the line for your test flight instead of crowding the wind tunnel.
  • Once you’ve tested your flight design, go back to the tables and redesign it to see if you can get it to fly faster, slower, float, etc. (Or get it to work if it didn’t fly or float.)

As a librarian, I knew I wanted to try this with my kindergartners all the way up to the 3rd grade, but I wanted each grade level to have a different experience.

Step 2: Kindergarten Activity

For kindergarten classes, I took printer papers from the recycle bin and cut them into four pieces. Each kinder maker was only allowed the one piece of paper. They could add tape, tear it, cut it, or fold it to see how these simple modifications can effect the flight of this single sheet of paper.

One of my favorite things about this activity with kindergarteners is that it helped me teach the littles that they can create on their own and test their own ideas. They do not have to have someone else fold, tear, or make everything for them. Many of them asked if I (or the teacher) would fold or cut their paper for them. Instead of doing so, I told them to try their own designs and see if it would work.

Letting students work completely on their own helps build creative confidence. It also helps them test their own curious ideas, rather than letting the teacher totally guide the student learning. It fosters independence, trouble shooting, and problem solving.

After students had one successful flight, I added small scraps of paper in the center of the table to see how each student would adapt to more materials. Students added papers together and called them other inventions like a drone, helicopter, etc.

Step 3: 1st Grade Activity

With first grade, I set out only paper and tape. At some point, a student noticed the pencils on the table and decided he MUST make a pencil fly. He tried design after design after design and it wouldn’t work. Then he built this huge and glorious tubular design to make a pencil fly. The other students in his class quickly took on the challenge to make pencils fly. Watch their flying pencils....

Other students noticed pipe cleaners and added them to their flying thingamajigs. Some flying things began to take on the appearance of story characters.

Step 4: 2nd Grade Activity

For second grade, they too started out with only the scrap paper, but after their first successful paper flight, I gave them a pipe cleaner and asked them to make another design.

With the added materials, students began to make things that resembled other identifiable objects and other flying things.

Flying "thingamjigs" even started to resemble story characters. To the point that their work gave me some ideas for writing extensions for the classroom:

  • What if the next challenge is to create a floating character?
  • Could the students go back to the classroom and write a how-to for creating a flying thingamajig?
  • Could they write a story about the character they created?

Step 5: 3rd Grade Activity

Third grade actually kicked off this activity as they were working on engineering and simple machine concepts for their IB planner. I gave them more materials initally before I decided to simplify for the younger grades.

I set out feathers, pipe cleaners, foam sheets, and recycled paper. However, since they tend to over use materials, I told them to only take four items to begin making a flying thingamajig. Thingamajigs quickly turned into birds, flying hats, and funny pipe cleaner characters.

This activity really helped kids tinker to better understand the concepts of flight, velocity, surface area, and it helped them tinker with the idea of tinkering! I loved how students would watch their thingamajig fly and immediately set to work on hacking their design to fly higher or float longer in the wind tunnel. I believe the simple rules helped the kids spend more time thinking about their design and more time watching their own creations in the wind tube.

This floating box built by a 3rd grader amazed me because, most students concentrated on height. I loved that this student transferred the idea of the hot air balloon to a floating box.

Students even figured out they could twist the pipe cleaner together in a way to make a beautiful floating butterfly.

Step 6: What Next?

During the experiments with other grades I had ideas for furthering our tinkering. I wondered what kindergartners might do with pipe cleaner? What if the challenge was to create a floating character? And then write a story about your character’s life? Or maybe even designing a character and then writing a how-to as an example of procedural text? What about flying sentences like the way airplanes used to fly messages behind them?

Once you get kids started combining making and writing, you can really go further with each exploration.

What will you explore with a wind tube?

Make It Fly Challenge

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Make It Fly Challenge