Today was May 4th… No, it was May THE Fourth! As in, “May the fourth be with you…” This meant the Polite Pirates (my students) simply had to do some Starwars-themed activities.
In preparation for a fun puzzle project, I taught the Polite Pirates about symmetry. I told them that they would be drawing spaceships. They were very excited.
“There is a reason the wings of an airplane are symmetrical,” I began. “Have you ever seen this trick?” I asked my class, taking a piece of paper and placing it just below my mouth.
As I blew hard right over the top of the paper, the entire paper flew up and fluttered under my breath. “Oooohs” hummed across the room.
I drew a picture of the paper on the board and explained, “When air travels quickly across the top of the paper, you create a vacuum (Physics Force, 2023). The fast moving air pulls the air that is resting in front of the paper up to join it. With no air in front of the paper, it gets sucked up into that empty space.
“Your household vacuum is a machine that creates a vacuum in order to suck up dirt and dust,” I tell my students. “A motor spins a fan that pushes air out of the machine. When the machine is empty of air, that is when it is truly a vacuum.” Mouths make Os of understanding.
I drew a crude picture of an airplane wing. “When air flows under the wing, it is going straight. That part is flat.” I draw arrows of air moving straight. “The front of the wing curves up and back. Air has to bend and is angled up when it travels over the wing. This causes the air that is resting above the wing to travel up also, creating a vacuum, or low pressure. As the air goes up, the wing goes up (Shaw, 2021).”
I picked the piece of paper back up, and once again demonstrated air pressure pulling the paper up. Of course, they all wanted to give this a try! After a minute or two of varying successes, I drew an entire airplane on the board.
“If one wing were smaller than the other, the plane would raise unevenly,” I explained. “The aircraft would start spinning. It is important for the wings to be symmetrical, so that the airplane remains balanced.”
[All of this explaining took longer than I had planned, but it was worth it. The students were really into the science of “lift,” and it lended extra importance to the idea of symmetry.]
After attracting the Polite Pirates attention once again, I explained, “You are going to engineer your own starship space cruiser,” I whispered in a serious, hushed voice. “The main quality that your creation must have is symmetry. Whatever you design on one side must exist on the opposite side of your ship.”
Each student received one large piece of paper. Students could work in pairs if they liked. Bowls full of plastic polygons were placed in the middle of groups of desks. The Polite Pirates took several polygons each and began assembling space ships.
I had told them and wrote on the board; At least 8 polygons per ship, and at least 3 different shapes must be used.
Students were to hold down the plastic shapes with one hand, and carefully trace an outline of the perimeter with pencil. Then they removed all of the polygons and went over the pencil with a marker.
“You will trade your picture with a partner and try to recreate each others’ space ships, arranging the colorful plastic polygons on the papers,” I explained.
Creativity swept the classroom! Colorful space cruisers covered desks and flowed across the floor.
A pair of students asked me if their shape was symmetrical when they had to add a blue triangle to a row of parallelograms in order to make a long thin trapezoid. I told them to ignore the color. “Can you cut it in half and fold the one side on top of the other hiding it completely?” When they saw that they could, they realized the symmetry of the shape.
The one thing that I’d do differently is limit the number of shapes. While my students had a blast using tons of polygons to make gigantic space ships, the answers to puzzles were too open-ended. A student could use a hundred combinations of shapes to fill a large empty space. The better puzzles were the ones that had a set answer.
It would have been better for space ships to have only a few right answers. Then the refilling of the perimeter with colorful polygons would require more concrete problem-solving.
All in all, this ended up being a memorable, fun learning experience. The Force was very strong with all of the Polite Pirates today.
Physics Force. University of Minnesota . (2023). Retrieved May 4, 2023, from https://physicsforce.umn.edu/content/paper-lift-0
Shaw, R. J. (Ed.). (2021). Dynamics of Flight: Kids Page. NASA. Retrieved May 4, 2023, from https://www.grc.nasa.gov/www/k-12/UEET/StudentSite/dynamicsofflight.html#:~:text=Airplane%20wings%20are%20shaped%20to,wing%20up%20into%20the%20air.