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How to Make a Paper Parachute Experiment

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this project, you'll be designing a paper parachute to maximize the time it takes for an object to fall to the ground. In doing this, you'll understand how different modifications to the parachute can influence the forces acting on it and thus influence the impact of the object on the ground.

Introduction

Goal: To build a paper parachute to maximize air time and minimize impact
Age: Middle school and up
Safety concerns: None
Time: 1 hour

Have you ever thought about sky diving? Jumping 14,000 feet out of an airplane, rushing through the air at speeds over 100 miles per hour, wondering if you made the right choice. But, you pull your parachute and the fabric explodes open, pulling you back up. Whew!

Parachutes provide a force to slow down your acceleration towards the earth
sky diver

The parachute slows down your acceleration and prevents the force of gravity from slamming you into the earth like roadkill. But how trustworthy are these parachutes? How do engineers design them? Today, you'll be investigating this yourself. Although our test subjects will be large paperclips instead of humans, you'll still be testing different design elements in order to make the best parachute.

Before you begin, think about some possible designs. How would shape and size affect how slowly the paperclip falls to the ground? What kind of parachutes do you want to test? For this experiment, we'll limit the supplies to two sheets of paper, 1 foot of string, 1 paperclip and two inches of masking tape per parachute. You can change the constraints to try different versions of this project if you want also.

Materials

  • 4 sheets of paper - regular computer paper or tissue paper
  • 2 large paperclips
  • 2 feet of string
  • 4 inches of masking tape
  • Scissors
  • Hole punch (if readily available)
  • Timer
  • Data table

Sketch of design Time for parachute to fall








Steps

1. First, decide which designs you want to make (square, circular, rectangular, octagonal, etc.). Sketch a design of each parachute in your data table.

2. Next, assemble the parachute top. Make any cuts or folds you need in the paper. Make small, circular cuts where you want to attach the string to the parachute - use a hole punch if you have one. Before making the holes, you may want to use tape to reinforce the area.

3. Next, insert your strings into the paper and tie or tape them there.

4. Tie the strings together at the bottom and then attach your paper clip securely.

5. Repeat steps 2-4 for each parachute you want to test

6. Now it's time to test your parachute. You should drop your parachute out a window, from a deck or down the stairs so there is sufficient time for it to fall. Try for at least a two story drop. Get your timer ready and release the parachute. Measure how many seconds it takes for the parachute to fall and record this in your data table.

Troubleshooting

If your parachute isn't working, try using larger sheets of paper to increase the surface area of the parachute. You can also drop it from a higher point if it's too hard to measure the time.

Discussion Questions

Which design worked best? Was it the one you predicted?

Why do you think parachutes help maximize air time, and how does this protect the person falling?

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