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Helping  Young Minds Take Flight by Sarah Shaffer

Helping Young Minds Take Flight

By Sarah Shaffer

The kid who yesterday got sent to the principal's office for disrupting the classroom with a soaring paper airplane may be tomorrow's aeronautical engineer. Our earliest written records document the human need to fly. One of Leonardo Da Vinci's first memories is of a kite landing in his crib; he credits that incident with inspiring him to study flight.

The Science of Flight is one of the most popular children's workshops I offer. Convinced that it takes a playful environment to unleash a child's inner scientist, I send the kid who crafts the best paper aircraft, not to the principal's office, but straight to the head of the class--as teacher! It's great to watch how a child with this skill gains stature in the eyes of her peers, as she shows them how to bend and fold into the most effective design. They quickly compete with each other in the trial and error approach that is the bedrock of scientific experimentation.

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Connecting kids to nature...

All children are born scientists. Learning begins with questions and the best ones are those children ask themselves. When experimenting with flight, the first question is usually, "How far can it go?", quickly followed by, "How high can it go?" As any parent of a child who has a way with paper airplanes can tell you, the answer to this second question is, "Pretty high." If you have cathedral ceilings and aren't comfortable with the nosecone of a paper plane decorating one of your beams, you might want to keep a stepladder handy.

After determining how far and how high, the next question is, "Why?" What factors influence aeronautical design? These are the kinds of questions that drove the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, to keep tinkering until they changed history that day at Kitty Hawk. What started them on the path to an achievement that had stumped so many inventors and scientists before them? A toy, a small helicopter that their father brought home from a trip to Europe. Consisting of little more than a stick with propellers powered by twisted rubber bands, it is that playful moment that you have to thank the next time you buckle up for a transcontinental flight.

Thank goodness Orville's first grade teacher didn't send him to the principal's office when she caught him playing with bits of wood at his desk. Instead, she asked him what he was doing. He told her he was making a machine like the one he and his brother would one day fly.

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