The Explainer General
Since he was a boy, John Collins has been fascinated by paper airplanes. Who isn’t? Most of us have folded the familiar dart-shaped classroom airplane. Good fun. And it’s science.
Big and small aircraft depend on the same four principles: weight (of the craft), drag (wind resistance over the craft), lift (upward force from air passing over the craft’s flight surfaces), and thrust (what pushes the craft). A 747 Jumbo Jet and a paper airplane depend on the same forces.
Collins wanted to fold this aeroscience into paper. But how to build (fold) complex principles into something so small?
He found the ancient Japanese art of origami and used its sculptural tricks. He created paper aircraft that do astonishing things. One comes back in a horizontal circle, like a boomerang. Another flies up, turns over and comes back vertically. One actually flaps its wings as it glides slowly. To John, they’re all working science experiments: every flight leads to some knowledge and to new ideas for tweaking the aircraft so it flies better.
John Collins became “The Paper Airplane Guy.” He believes that scientific research happens everywhere, every day. He says, “It doesn’t take computers, lab coats, microscopes and the like. It takes a hunger to know. Science is just the structured way we find stuff out. The science you can do with a simple sheet of paper is no less important than what can be done with an electron microscope.”
On February 26, 2012, John and Joe Ayoob stood in a big, windless aircraft hangar with John’s best-so-far flyer, Suzanne. (He named it after his wife.) Joe was a professional football quarterback who learned to throw Suzanne hard but steady, not like a football but like a delicate piece of origami. Joe threw Suzanne up, up, and it dived down to fly – really fly – 226 feet and 10 inches, the Guinness World Record for distance thrown.
John wanted paper airplanes to welcome young people into science. He started a National Paper Airplane Contest called the Kickstarter Project with a big prize for anyone who throws Suzanne farther than Joe. Or you could throw your own better, more aeronautically elegant paper airplane. It was a simple, scientific task. Every paper airplane and every flight would be a new experiment, just as important as the Wright Brothers’ Kittyhawk flight. Science isn’t just geeks and labs; we’re all part of it. The project didn’t get support and ended. John would like to direct people to www.TheNationalPaperAirplaneContest.com. Air and Science museums across the country will be hosting events. The museums get three Fly for Fun Days; STEM education days that teach basic flight concepts and skills for the national contest.
Jan Adkins is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, WiFi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Flat Paper Flight." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 Apr.
As any paper airplane pilot knows, getting into the air and staying up in the air are two different things. An out-of-control, unstable paper airplane quickly ends up on the floor—no matter how powerfully you threw it. Controlling an airplane was the problem yet to be solved in the late 1890s. Many of the inventors racing to be the first to build a powered flying machine didn’t understand that controlling an airplane is different from controlling other vehicles of the time. But the Wright Brothers did.
Unlike a car or boat, an airplane moves in three directions: pitch, yaw, and roll. Stable flight takes correctly controlling all three.
When you steer a boat, you move a rudder to go left or right. This is yaw. Turn a rudder on its side and you get an elevator, which controls a submarine as it dives and surfaces. This is pitch. Airplanes also have elevators and rudders. But flying takes more than up-down and right-left control. An airplane also tilts side to side, in a motion called roll. Think of a jet tilting its wings as it changes direction. Or a little kid zooming around with tilted arms spread wide.
Controlling the roll of an airplane was the secret to stable, sustained flight. And this is where the Wright Brothers had an edge. They built bicycles. A bicycle is an unstable vehicle when it isn’t moving. In fact, it falls over. A moving bicycle is much easier to balance than a stopped one. And steering a moving bicycle is more than just turning the handlebars right or left. The rider must lean into turns, tilting his body to keep balanced. Sound familiar? It’s the same kind of motion as roll.
Orville and Wilbur Wright knew about roll and worked on a way to control it even while experimenting with gliders. They controlled roll through wing-warping, a system of cables attached to the wings that twisted their shape, like twisting an empty aluminum foil box. The pilot controlled which way the wings warped by moving his hips as he lay on the airplane in a kind of cradle. Soon ailerons, those flaps on the backside of airplane wings, became the controller of roll. But the brothers of the Wright Cycle Company figured it out—and flew—first.
If you look at pitch, roll and yaw together you can see that each type of motion helps control the direction and level of the plane when it is flying. The ailerons raise and lower the wings. The pilot controls the roll of the plane by raising one aileron or the other with a control wheel. The rudder works to control the yaw of the plane. Pressing the right rudder pedal moves the rudder to the right. This yaws the aircraft to the right. Used together, the rudder and the ailerons are used to turn the plane. The elevators which are on the tail section are used to control the pitch of the plane. Lowering the elevators makes the plane nose go down and allows the plane to go down. By raising the elevators the pilot can make the plane go up.
First successful flight of the Wright Flyer, by the Wright brothers. The machine traveled 120 ft (36.6 m) in 12 seconds. Orville Wright was at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with his hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. Wilbur Wright ran alongside to balance the machine. Library of Congress
Mary Kay Carson's The Wright Brothers for Kids: How They Invented the Airplane, 21 Activities Exploring the Science and History of Flight tells the amazing true story of how two bicycle-making brothers from Ohio, with no more than high-school educations, accomplished a feat on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, that forever changed the world.
MLA 8 Citation
Carson, Mary Kay. "How Did Building Bikes Help the Wright Brothers Invent the
Airplane?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Mar. 2018,
Bessie Coleman, better known as Queen Bess, was America’s first black woman pilot. Born in Texas in 1892, into a world of extreme poverty and deepening racial discrimination, her dream to “amount to something one day” was fought against overwhelming odds. Working as a manicurist in a Chicago barbershop, she read about World War I pilots. She decided that she wanted to become a pilot. But she was met with the reaction: “You, a Negro and a woman—you must be joking.”
Undeterred, Bessie sought the advice of a valued customer in the barbershop. “Go to France,” he said. “The French are much more accepting of both women and blacks— but first learn the language.”
That same day, Bessie began taking French lessons. A few months later, she sailed for France, and signed up with an aviation school. Her training included everything from banked turns and looping-the-loop to airplane maintenance. In 1921, she became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license.
Back in the U.S., an African-American woman pilot was big news. Thunderous applause and a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” greeted Bessie at her first airshow in New York. Memphis and Chicago followed. Bessie’s future never looked brighter. She managed to buy an old Curtis Jenny, a favorite plane among barnstormers. She was heading for a performance in Los Angeles, when the engine stalled; she crashed onto the street below, was knocked unconscious, broke one leg, and fractured several ribs.
Distraught over having disappointed her fans, she sent a telegram to the local newspaper: AS SOON AS I CAN WALK I’M GOING TO FLY! Seven months later, she was back in a borrowed plane, performing to upbeat crowds in Ohio, Texas, and Florida.
Bessie loved flying and accepted its risks, but her real ambition was to open a flight school. Sadly, she didn’t live to see her dream realized. In 1926, her old, run-down plane went into a spin. Bessie was thrown out of her seat, and fell to her death.
At her funeral, thousands paid their respects to the brave young aviator. With her pluck and determination, Bessie Coleman had set an example for many black people.
Shortly thereafter, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles became a reality, introducing young blacks to the world of aviation. Among those inspired by Bessie was Dr. Mae Jemison, the first woman African-American astronaut.
As you can see, Roxie Munro is a talented illustrator as well as a writer. She has a new series of nine desktop two-sided fold-out wordless nonfiction books called KIWiStorybooks Jr.. They come with a stand-up "play figure" and a free interactive app loaded with games and puzzles, fascinating facts in a Q&A format, sounds, and more. OCEAN has a Coral Reef on one side and a Research Ship Laboratory on the other.
Roxie is also a member of Authors on Call. You can read more about how you can have her visit your classroom with interactive videoconferencing here.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "Bessie Coleman." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 16 Feb. 2018,
You’ve probably heard about Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to fly across the Atlantic. But did you ever hear about Cal Rodgers?
Only eight years after the Wright brothers flew the first heavier-than-air machine, newspaper tycoon William Hearst offered a $50,000 prize to the first to fly across the continent in less than 30 days.
Although Cal Rodgers had just learned to fly, he was ready. “He’ll need every atom of courage..,” Wilbur Wright had said of any man who attempted to win the prize.
The nation had not a single airport, and there were no navigation aids or repair places. . To help him, a train carrying a second plane, spare parts, a crew of mechanics, Cal’s wife Mabel, his mother, and reporters was rented by a company producing a grape drink named Vin Fiz. In exchange, Cal named his airplane after it, and would scatter Vin Fiz promotional leaflets from the sky— the first aerial ad campaign.
On September 17, 1911, Cal took off from Brooklyn, made a sweep over Manhattan and headed for New Jersey, where the train, and an enormous crowd, was waiting.
The next morning, right after takeoff he tried to avoid some power lines, hit a tree, and plunged into a chicken coop. Feathers floated as he emerged from a tangle of wires, splintered wood, and torn fabric. Head bleeding, cigar clenched between his teeth, he muttered, “Oh, my beautiful airplane.”
They rebuilt the Vin Fiz, and a few days later he was again airborne. Stopovers were frequent, as were brushes with death. The plane struck telegraph wires; it piled into a barbed-wire fence (demolished again); and landing in Indiana, Cal was attacked by a bull. He became the first pilot to fly in a thunderstorm. But the Vin Fiz buzzed on.
When he reached Chicago, other contenders had dropped out. Cal realized that he wasn’t going to make it to the west coast in 30 days. But he pressed on…
To avoid the Rocky Mountains, he flew south over Texas, then west. By the time he reached California, after a dozen crashes, his plane had been rebuilt so often that little remained of the original.
A month later, after still another crash and in yet another rebuilt plane, he finally reached the Pacific, greeted by 50,000 spectators
Tragically, Cal’s luck ran out. A few months later, he flew into a flock of seagulls, and plunged to his death.
But he did it— he became the first pilot to fly across the American continent.
In eleven intricately drawn mazes, eight vehicles, each carrying a different product, are on their way to the city. Fish, apples, dairy products, corn, vegetables, flowers, eggs, and baked goods all travel through colorful and minutely detailed landscape mazes to reach the city farmer's market. Information on all of the products and their journeys is included, along with answers to all of the mazes. For additional fun, kids are challenged to look for objects hidden on each spread. For more information, on Roxie's Market Maze, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "A Transcontinental First." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 22
Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
the "Julia Child" of kids' hands-on science
Think you might like to be a helicopter pilot? If so, here’s what the U.S. Flight Aptitude Selection Test for helicopter pilots says: “Helicopter pilots must pass some of the most demanding physical tests of any job in the military. To be accepted for pilot training, applicants must have excellent vision and be in top physical condition. They must have very good eye-hand-foot coordination and have quick reflexes.”
A sense of balance is also extremely important because sometimes instruments alone are not enough to keep a helicopter oriented properly in the air. Pilots may have to make very subtle corrections. So here’s a test for balance. Be forewarned. Not many people can do this, maybe one in twenty.
1. Stand at attention.
2. Make two fists and extend your arms straight down by your sides. Point your index fingers to the ground.
3. Close your eyes.
4. Bend one leg back at the knee so that your lower leg is parallel to the floor and you are standing on one foot. Don’t let your foot droop. You must maintain your knee at a right angle.
5. Keep your eyes closed and hold this position for ninety seconds.
6. Try not to shake.
I learned about this from a Scotsman who told me about this test to qualify for the British Royal Air Force. He couldn't pass it, nor could I. In fact, no one I knew could rise to the helicopter pilot challenge except a Navy pilot in my family. He held the position perfectly for two minutes. Solid like a rock. No problem.
It’s clear that when it comes to certain skills not everyone is equal. Some people are not even close. So very few people are in the running to become helicopter pilots. You're probably not one of them but this may change with training.
Vicki Cobb is a former science teacher with a M.A. in secondary school science. She is also the founder and president of iNK Think Tank, the group that is producing The Nonfiction Minute. Thanks, Vicki!
Check out How Could We Harness a Hurricane?. To find out more about this book and other books that Vicki has written, click here.
Vicki Cobb is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 CItation
Cobb, Vicki. "Take the Helicopter Pilot Challenge." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/ Take-the-Helicopter-Pilot-Challenge.
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For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
The NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Committee is pleased to inform you
that 30 People Who Changed the World has been selected for Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2018, a cooperative project of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) & the Children’s Book Council