March 24th, 2023

High School Resource: The Parachute


High School Resource

The Parachute

The Parachute is an activity in which students design and then conduct an experiment to investigate the effects of various factors on the rate of fall of parachutes.

This learning experience was designed as a variance for the Physics Regents examination (35% Option). In addition to supporting student progress toward meeting the Mathematics, Science, and Technology learning standards, the goal of this experience was to incorporate performance tasks into the examination to assess the skills, processes, and kinds of thinking that are essential in an investigatory science project but are not adequately evaluated in the traditional Regents examination. In this experience, the students were assessed on experimental design, observational skills, graphing and interpretation, critical thinking and synthesis, and error analysis.

A constructivist learning model is implicit in this learning experience, with students first engaged, and then involved in exploring a natural phenomenon, explaining their observations, and then applying the knowledge they have constructed to make predictions. Assessment occurs throughout the experience.

To succeed with this learning experience, students need to have an understanding of the concepts of free fall and gravity as well as skills in solving a problem by designing, conducting, and evaluating a scientific experiment using an appropriate model.
After engaging student interest in parachutes (by referring to Leonardo da Vinci’s plans for such a device, for example, and the effect of free fall on human bodies), students are asked to write a procedure to determine the effect of different size parachutes and different masses on the time it takes the masses to fall. Students are asked to study the nature of a parachute and the factors that affect the time of fall.

The students are divided into groups and each group is given a stopwatch, several masses, a balance, a meter stick, and materials to construct parachutes.

The students work in groups to perform a mutually agreed upon procedure. They record all their data, and repeat steps as needed. From this point on, the students work as individuals consistent with the protocol for an exam. If this were a class activity, they might continue to work in groups.

After completing the experiment, students are asked to write three observations they made, plot a graph, interpret the graph, and evaluate the reliability of the data and sources of error. They also interpret their experimental data to determine the mathematical relationship between time of fall and the parachute mass.

Students are asked to perform the following experiment at home. They push a plastic cup into a sink full of water and observe the resistance to the pushing as they make a hole; and then enlarge the hole in the bottom of the cup. They are then asked to apply their results with the plastic cup to the use of an adjustable hole in the top of a parachute. They are to predict the effect of a hole in the parachute and then cut the hole and actually measure the effect.

Students are presented with a diagram of a parachute with an attached basket, and are asked to draw and label the forces acting on this combination, which causes its vertical motion. They also must calculate the speed with which the parachute hit the ground.

Students are provided with an experimental procedure for measuring the relationship between the diameter of a parachute and the time of fall. They are asked to critique the procedure, indicating if it is clear and if it is adequate to obtain the desired information. They must also compare this procedure to their own procedure.

During the experimental phase, Step 2, the teacher coaches the groups to insure that, for example, they construct a functioning parachute, measure the drop distance, and discard the results if the parachute hits an obstacle.

Related NY State Academic Standards: RST.9-10.1, RST.9-10.8, RST.9-10.9, and more!

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