Parachute Science: A School-Age STEM Program

Trash bag chute

Photo by Amy Koester.

I was listening to the radio a few months ago when I heard a story involving toy parachute soldiers–those small plastic figures with thin plastic parachutes strapped to their backs like you might have won at a school carnival as a child. I don’t remember precisely what the story was about, but I do remember thinking, “I can do that at the library.” And so I did, offering a very simple, straightforward (dare I say unprogrammed?) school-age STEM program this spring. I hope you’ll take the plunge into STEM and offer it at your library, too.

First, we talked about the science. I had a bunch of the library’s books involving parachutes on display, and I opened the program by asking the children what they knew about parachutes. I filled in their concept knowledge with a few facts from the library resources, then I showed a terrific short video on the science of parachutes from the Boston Museum of Science. After the video, the children and I debriefed about what they had seen and learned and what they could apply to the hands-on portion of our program.

Next came the hands-on STEM work. I had set out a variety of basic materials for the children to experiment with as they created their own parachutes:

  • trash bags and 11″x17″ pieces of paper for the canopy
  • different weights of yarn for the lines
  • scissors and hole punches for construction
  • tape for connecting pieces
  • paper clips for the basic bottom load weight for the parachute
  • magnets for optional additional load weight
  • markers in case anyone felt like decorating their paper chutes
Making our parachutes

Photo by Amy Koester.

With all of the supplies up for grabs, the kids got to work building their parachutes. I walked from table to table asking questions about their engineering decisions: what size and shape canopy? how many lines, and where are they connected to the canopy? should the canopy have a vent, and if so, how big and what shape? The room was pretty evenly split, with half the children working diligently on a single chute while the other half made a few prototypes each. When all was said and done, the children spent about 25 minutes building their chutes. Note: Depending on the age of your participants and the number of accompanying caregivers, you might budget more time for children who may need assistance.

We ended by testing our parachutes. I had set up a ladder behind the program room partition before the children arrived, and when it came time to test our parachutes, I dropped them from the top of the ladder. We all observed how the parachutes worked when dropped with just a paper clip for the load, then again with the addition of a heavier magnet. I was pleased to hear the children hypothesizing about why one shape or size seemed to be more consistent than another and how a vent in the canopy meant a straighter descent. I heard a number of kids say they would make modifications and drop their chutes from the top of the stairs at home. Note: Turns out that parachutes can get snagged on watches, so you may want to take yours off before testing the chutes.

Kids checked out books on parachutes and military paratroopers after the program. They also got to take home their parachutes, which meant ample possibilities for extending the STEM learning outside of the program and the library. That’s always a goal I have for my STEM programs for any age: for children to engage in the topic in the library, but to also maintain an interest in the topic and experiment with it afterward. I would count myself successful with this program.

Have you ever made and/or dropped parachutes with children in your library? Sound off in the comments. I’ll be particularly jealous if you have a multi-story building and are able to drop parachutes from a higher floor!

This entry was posted in Blogger Amy Koester, Programming Ideas, STEM/STEAM and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Parachute Science: A School-Age STEM Program

  1. Lisa (@ Libraryland) says:

    Thanks for doing your STEAM series. As I have no science background, your explanations & programs are great for me to adapt for our kiddos.

  2. Dan Rude says:

    Fun program! Be careful on that ladder Amy!

  3. Pingback: Be Inspired: STEM Concepts in Library Programming |

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