A Digression Into Parachutes

When I reflect on this past week in the Blue Band a line from our read aloud The Twenty-One Balloons comes to mind.  William Pene du Bois is explaining why ballooning is the best mode of travel.  He says,

“In a balloon you can decide only when to start, and usually when to stop.  The rest is left entirely to nature.  How fast you will go and where is left to the winds.  It is a wonderful way to travel.”

As a collaborator I strive always to be a balloonist.  I know our starting point and usually have a good idea of where we will end up, but I like to let the winds of opportunity and students’ interest to carry us to new territory.  This week our band got carried away with parachutes!

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Last week Piper and I introduced a new project.  The Yellow and Blue bands are sending a helium balloon into the stratosphere to take pictures of the earth from the edge of space.  This is a complex and exciting project!  One of the most important problems that the kids need to solve is how to protect our equipment as it plummets down to earth from space.  So we gave them the good ole egg drop challenge!

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Each team was given an egg and asked to design a container that would protect their egg from a 61 foot fall.  Here we are on the roof measuring just how high we would be dropping our eggs from!

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In the Blue band every single design included a parachute.

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Every single design was successful!  Look at the glee on these kids’ faces!  What a great day!

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It was interesting to see how everyone converged on a parachute design so I invited my friend John, a sky diver, to come and talk to us about his parachute.

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He walked us through the physics and felt experience of sky diving as we watched footage of his jumps.  The Blue band was brimming with questions.  Some of my favorites included: “Are you scared when you jump out of the plane?”, “Has an animal ever sky dived?” and “Does the wind feel like a massage on your stomach as you fall?”

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John explained to us that each square foot of parachute equals just about 1 pound of drag.  We laid out his parachute and tried to figure out how much he weighs by finding the area of the parachute.  It was a big multiplication problem because we were working with large dimensions.  So we tackled it as a group looking at different strategies to break down and rebuild the problem to make it easier.

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I can’t pass up an opportunity to make a connection between math and the world so the following morning I gave them a parachute math provocation.  Each person got a piece of paper with all sorts of different creatures that wanted to go skydiving, like penguins (22 lbs), grandmas (120lbs), and pineapples (8 lbs). They had to use the base ten blocks to build parachutes for these creatures.   They were finding factors by creating arrays which modeled multiplication problems and having fun while doing it!  Tamasen and Sadie asked if we could do this same problem again the following day!

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I want my students to be able to go their own pace and make their own discoveries.  So I am always looking for problems that can accommodate all sorts of discoveries.  This one really caught everyone’s imagination.  Gita discovered that there are multiple ways to build a parachute. “Two fourteens and four sevens are the same number!”   Ronan shared with everyone, “I’ve found a hack!  You just have to multiply the number by itself!”   Tamasen, Sadie and Lily each made the discovery that a parachute was a multiplication problem.

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From egg drops to sky diving to parachute multiplication it has been such a rich and inspiring week.  Traveling on the winds of our curiosity the Blue band has drifted into some interesting new territories.  Next week we will be refocusing on our weather balloon launch!