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Simple STEM activities to do at home: Helicopter Spinner

Published: Apr 3, 2020 4 min read



Like most parents the last couple of days has forced me to juggle both childcare and work commitments. I’m lucky that I have a teaching background but my two daughters, Rosie aged 7 and Beth aged 12, are much younger than the sixth form students that I used to teach. Their age difference makes setting a task which satisfies and challenges both rather difficult. Having worked through a selection of worksheets and online activities set by their school, they were both keen to do something more practical… and Dad’s a science teacher isn’t he? Or at least he does something to do with science.

Getting hands-on

Beth showed me her science classwork that had been set – seed dispersal. Perhaps on the face of it, this is not the most fascinating of topics? Until I remembered a practical task that goes with this (making a helicopter spinner to simulate a falling sycamore seed) would lend itself to a full investigation.

Using this template for a helicopter spinner, I tasked them with drawing and cutting out spinners of various sizes (our investigation was going to focus on how wing length altered the time taken for the spinner to fall).

Building cross-curricular skills

I set Rosie the task of making measurements of the wings. She’s been learning about decimal points recently making this a good exercise for her to get to grips with cm and mm scales and report her readings accurately. Meanwhile, I set Beth the task of creating a table on Excel and recording the measurements – a good opportunity for us to discuss how the data should be displayed and a bit of cross-curricular digital skills building with the use of IT.

We then headed for the staircase for a discussion about the importance of standardising and repeating each experiment and how we would accurately time the descent of each helicopter. They both enjoyed this and swapped roles of releasing, timing and recording – some good teamwork! We followed this with a Maths lesson for Rosie as we discussed what a mean average was and how it can be calculated – followed by more IT for Beth as we looked at how Excel can magically calculate and fill all boxes of a table using a single formula.

Analysing the data

We headed back to the living room and had a discussion about how it’s sometimes hard to identify patterns just looking at tables of data, we need… a graph! Using two toilet rolls we converted the living room into a pair of giant graph axis, creating a discussion about scales and what the minimum and maximum numbers were needed to fit on each axis. They both used a pen to write the scale on the toilet rolls allowing us to plot to the relevant place where the wing length and time met for each helicopter – X marks the spot! We placed the helicopter at this position and repeated for all the others. I think plotting the graph in this way allows a more intuitive understanding of what the graph means, they can see exactly where each data point is and how they all relate to each other.

We had a clear trend and a couple of anomalies – the trend correctly identified by Rosie and the anomalies explained by Beth in that the biggest helicopters were made of a different paper and rather flimsy so they folded mid-flight. Beth was able to demonstrate her understanding of forces and air resistance.

From science to engineering

Normally, this is where the science lesson would end. It occurred to me that the current circumstances allows for more detailed follow up - we’ve now turned this into an engineering investigation by setting a challenge. Can they design and fly a helicopter spinner that can remain airborne for a full 4 seconds? Obviously, a prize will be awarded for a successful flight! Having become familiar with the basic investigation, they can now work independently, as a team or as rivals, make creative tweaks and tinker, and do all of this without much direct input from me.

All of which means I can be freed up to get on with the day job… I must admit that I did rather enjoy reprising my role as a science teacher again!