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Kenny Schmidt, 12, puts his paper airplane in motion Wednesday at Willmar Middle School. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

Teachers apply NASA lessons in Willmar, Minn., classrooms

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Paper airplanes glided across the sixth-grade science classroom, and the room was busy with chatter and activity as kids judged flight patterns and commented on the various designs.

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It looked like a movie scene of teacher-leaves-the-room chaos. But in this case, teacher John Kuznik was right in the middle of the action.

"This is part of the sixth-grade engineering project," Kuznik said as he offered advice to Willmar Middle School students who were still building their planes or making adjustments after a test flight on the first day of March.

Kuznik was one of four Willmar science teachers to spend two weeks last summer at a NASA workshop. The teachers developed lesson plans and participated in NASA projects during their time there.

He and teacher Ben Panchyshyn developed the paper airplane lesson plan during their time at Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley.

High school science teachers Rob Flegel and Margaret Schmitz were part of a team at Ames working on an insulation system for bringing astronauts home from space. Flegel teaches at Willmar Senior High and Schmitz teaches at the Area Learning Center.

The group brought home science lesson plans and information to share with teachers in other disciplines.

A few days ago, the project culminated with formal test flights in the hallway. Some of the planes flew farther than 30 feet, others had flights shorter than 10 feet. The important thing is they all flew.

Kuznik had placed strips of green tape on the floor to mark a starting line and one-foot hash marks down the hall. He was the judge of where the planes landed; the slide after landing didn't count.

The students' throwing techniques and their planes were all different. One plane took a decidedly boomerang-like turn at the end of each flight. Some went straight up to the ceiling or veered to one side.

Some students gave their planes a light toss that sent them sailing down the hall. Others wound up and heaved them down the hall and sometimes to the ground.

The airplane project developed by Kuznik and Panchyshyn led students through research on the history of flight and a study of aerodynamics, motion and flight. Panchyshyn is teaching elementary students this year.

Each student drew a blueprint of an aircraft and used card stock paper, tape and glue to build the craft as designed.

"The blueprint and the aircraft need to look similar," Kuznik said. The planes each needed to have a three-dimensional compartment where people could ride. It kept students from just folding a nice paper airplane to complete the assignment.

Only part of their grade will be based on how their airplanes flew, he said. The class will also be graded on classroom participation and work on other aspects of the project.

The other science teacher at Willmar Middle School, Carolyn Grippentrog, will likely use the lesson plan later in the school year. "I wanted to test it out before," Kuznik said.

So far, he said, he considers the project a success. "The kids love it," he said. "It's hands-on, and it's STEM." STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. It's been a focus of education policy makers in recent years.

Emily Ritter, 11, said while she was working on her plane that she wasn't a big fan of the construction phase. When it was time to see whose plan would fly the farthest, though, she liked that better.

Getachew Hundera, 12, said he had liked the engineering unit. "We get to learn about motion and what it needs to fly," he said, and he appreciated "that we get to build it and redesign it after that."

The students let their imaginations roam in their plane designs.

Oscar Benitez, 13, designed an airplane with feather-like extensions on its wings. "It's supposed to look like a bird when it lands," he said. The landing gear was designed to look like bird feet. Oscar thought it would fly pretty well, "because of the air movement over the feathers."

Kenny Schmidt, 12, designed a plane that could lift off and land without using a runway.

River Rowan, 12, built a wingless aircraft that was a cylinder with two passenger compartments built inside. He tossed it underhand and it traveled more than 20 feet.

"I found it in a book, and I thought it was a pretty good idea," he said.

All of the engineering projects had to be designed and built at school, he said. That prevented the students from getting help from older siblings or parents.

Kuznik said he has enjoyed watching the students work on their designs. Some students who struggle with other assignments have excelled at this unit.

"They are the leaders," he said, and they have been helping others.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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