Science of Flight


Science of Flight teaches students all about how objects fly. Students will discover the similarities and differences between natural flying objects (birds) and mechanical flying objects (planes, kites, etc.). They will also learn about the four elements of flight design and the four principles of flight.

You can take advantage of the suggestions in the “Options for Lesson” section that offers additional activities or ideas to incorporate into the lesson plan. One idea is to take students to a local airport and interview someone who works in the control tower. Or you could have a pilot come speak to the class and answer questions.

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What our Science of Flight lesson plan includes

Lesson Objectives and Overview: Science of Flight teaches students the basic concepts surrounding how objects fly. Students will compare and contrast different types of mechanical flight (such as airplanes and kits) to natural flight (birds). This lesson is for students in 4th grade, 5th grade, and 6th grade.

Classroom Procedure

Every lesson plan provides you with a classroom procedure page that outlines a step-by-step guide to follow. You do not have to follow the guide exactly. The guide helps you organize the lesson and details when to hand out worksheets. It also lists information in the yellow box that you might find useful. You will find the lesson objectives, state standards, and number of class sessions the lesson should take to complete in this area. In addition, it describes the supplies you will need as well as what and how you need to prepare beforehand. Apart from writing utensils, students will need internet access and the materials listed on the activity page.

Options for Lesson

The “Options for Lesson” section of the classroom procedure page outlines some additional activities and variations that you can use when presenting this lesson to your students. Nearly every city in America has a nearby commercial or military airport. Many have model airplanes, drone clubs, or air museums. One great way to introduce the Science of Flight lesson is to have a pilot come and speak to the class about flying. Another great idea is to visit a local airport and interview someone who works in the control tower. All of these options provide an opportunity for students to learn about flight from someone with experience in flying.

Teacher Notes

The teacher notes page provides an extra paragraph of information to help guide the lesson and remind you what to focus on. The blank lines on this page are available for you to write out thoughts and ideas you have as you prepare the lesson.


Introduction to the Science of Flight

The Science of Flight lesson plan has three content pages. First, students will realize that the world is full of many things that fly in the air. It is nearly impossible to avoid seeing birds gliding across the tree line. You have no doubt observed planes jetting across the sky or helicopters hovering overhead. Maybe you have been lucky enough to take a plane flight to some far destination. Perhaps you were able to fly a kite when the wind was just right.

Given the amount of flying you can easily observe, have you ever wondered why some things can fly while others cannot? You are not alone! Some of the earliest cave drawings (12,000 years ago) depict flying birds. While we can’t possibly know what someone that long ago was thinking, we can speculate that they were probably thinking the same thing as you. So, what is the science behind flight?

Four Elements of Flight Design

Aeronautics is the study of flight. The prefix aero– comes from the Greek aēr, meaning air. And –nautics also comes from a Greek root, nautikos, referring to a sailing ship. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), “Aeronautics is the method of designing an airplane or other flying machine. Aeronautical engineers must understand four basic elements to design flying machines.” What are those elements? How do aeronautical engineers use the four elements of flight design?

The four elements are aerodynamics, propulsion, materials & structures, and stability & control. Aerodynamics studies moving air and the interaction between air and solid objects moving through it. Propulsion deals with designing engines with enough thrust to allow an object to take off and fly through the air. Materials and structures involve—well,—the materials used to build the object. Stability and control study how to control the speed, direction, altitude, and other conditions that affect an object’s flight.

Airplanes come in different sizes and fly at different speeds. However, the principles behind flight are basically the same for all aircraft types. As our example, we will use commercial aircraft or planes that fly passengers to different destinations. The Boeing 737 is the best-selling large commercial airplane in history. You have probably seen one or maybe flown in one.

Depending on the model, the plane can hold up to 180 passengers, is between 102 and 138 feet long, and weighs nearly 180,000 pounds when loaded with passengers and luggage. It’s not the biggest plane in the world, but it’s easy to see that it takes a lot of engineering to fly! There are four principles of flight, or four forces, that affect an aircraft.

Four Principles of Flight

Each element in the design counteracts or offsets the forces interacting with the plane. Using the root word, what do you think the word aerodynamic means? Aerodynamic design minimizes forces interacting with an object as it moves. We usually think of air or drag. Drag is the force of resistance air creates when an object moves forward. It slows the plane. Have you ever tried running when a powerful wind blows in your face? You are experiencing drag! Aerodynamic design reduces the force of drag by creating designs that allow air to easily flow across the wings and body of the plane.

The second force, and one you already know, is gravity. Gravity pulls the plane toward the earth when an aircraft tries to gain altitude or height. We can use weight to describe gravity’s pull on the plane. Using high-tech, light materials reduces the aircraft’s weight, as well as some of the force gravity exerts. The third force is thrust or propulsion. Thrust is the action of moving an object forward. It is produced by the aircraft’s engines. The last force is the lift, or the force moving an aircraft upward. The lift is generated by the wings.

How does lift work? The scientific explanation behind lift is that the wings are shaped in a certain way to make air move faster over the top of it. When air moves faster, the pressure of the air decreases. So the pressure on the top of the wing is less than the pressure on the bottom. The pressure difference creates a force on the wing. The force on the wings lifts the aircraft up into the air.

Science of Flight: Bird versus Plane

Can you see how the four elements of flight design counteract the forces of gravity, lift, thrust, and drag? Aircraft experience several forces, beginning with takeoff and flight, and ending with a smooth landing. Pilots use sophisticated instruments to make flight adjustments to control each force.

Students will discover that birds experience the same forces as aircraft. In other words, the science of flight applies to them too. (Perhaps it’s even based on them!) The difference is that birds don’t mechanically generate thrust. Birds are similar to aircraft as they are aerodynamic and lightweight, and they have strong, rigid structures. Their wing design maximizes lift caused by differences in air pressure. Birds are built for flying!

The lesson plan explains that, much like aircraft, different birds have different designs. For example, heavy birds like pelicans must get a running start to get airborne. Some birds begin flying from high perches like the tops of trees or cliffs. Hummingbirds are unique in that they can hover or stay in one place for an extended time. They flap their wings dozens of times per second. Hummingbirds differ from other bird species because they flap their wings in a comparable figure-eight pattern. The physical design of birds takes advantage of the four forces, allowing birds to fly and migrate for miles at a time.

The principles of flight for birds are not different from that of aircraft. Scientists are amazed at the efficiency of birds in flight and continue to study them to learn their secrets to hopefully—one day—apply them to man-made aircraft.


The Science of Flight lesson plan includes three worksheets: an activity worksheet, a practice worksheet, and a homework assignment. Each one will reinforce students’ comprehension of lesson material in different ways and help them demonstrate when they learned. Use the guidelines on the classroom procedure page to determine when to distribute each worksheet to the class.


Students will practice flying a different kind of paper airplane during the activity. They will build ring-wing aircraft instead! The page lists the necessary materials and describes the assembly instructions. There is also a picture of a completed ring-wing for reference.


The practice worksheet requires students to compare and contrast birds and planes. They must list how the two flying objects are similar in the first column and how they differ in the other. They can use the content pages for assistance if necessary.


For the homework assignment, students will first label the airplane to show the four principles of flight. Then they will respond to two prompts at the bottom of the page.

Worksheet Answer Keys

At the end of the lesson plan document are answer keys for the practice and homework worksheets. Given the nature of these assignments, students’ responses will vary on some of the prompts. If you choose to administer the lesson pages to your students via PDF, you will need to save a new file that omits these pages. Otherwise, you can simply print out the applicable pages and keep these as reference for yourself when grading assignments.

Additional information


4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade



State Educational Standards

NGSS.3-ETS1-1, NGSS.3-5-ETS1-2, NGSS.MS-ETS1-1

Lessons are aligned to meet the education objectives and goals of most states. For more information on your state objectives, contact your local Board of Education or Department of Education in your state.