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Teacher Background

Unit Plan
Student Portfolio
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The Estes Glider Challenge Banner

Grade 6-8 | 7 (45 min) Classes

We have a natural desire to extend our capabilities and make life easier and more enjoyable for ourselves and others. Every human is wired to create solutions to challenges in their life. Think about a toddler you might know. Every day toddlers ask questions, imagine possibilities, plan, create something new, test, improve then share successes and failures. This process is 100% natural. People, both big and small, learn by doing. In this project, students will learn the art and engineering that goes into building a solution to a simple problem.


Estes Rockets is a model rocket company located in Penrose, Colorado. It is known as the “Model Rocket Capital of the World”. Since 1958, they have opened the world of experiential learning opportunities in the fields of aerospace, science, technology, engineering, math, and arts to millions of people. In this design challenge, students will be helping the engineers at Estes Rockets design a paper glider model for a new line of aerospace products. Engineers often create small models of a product to test and evaluate a design. This is especially true with flying vehicles. Model testing tells engineers how to adjust their designs to meet the project requirements for the client and end user. Students will be introduced to the engineering design process and apply the 4C’s (creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration). A Student Design Portfolio is included to help students track the excitement and learning experience.


Targeted Performance Expectation(s):

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

MS-PS2-2 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions

Plan an investigation to provide evidence that the change in an object’s motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object.

MS-ETS 1-4 Engineering Design

Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.



A type of engineer that focuses on problems related to atmospheric and space flight such as aircrafts and spacecrafts.


The aerodynamic force that opposes an aircraft’s motion through the air.


The ability to understand, be aware of, and share feelings and experiences of another person.


A series of steps and processes engineers use to find a solution to a problem.


A Motorless flying vehicle.


A feeling of great happiness caused by something delightful, good, or satisfying.


The force that directly opposes the weight of an aircraft and holds an aircraft in the air.


A person that operates the controls of a vehicle or aircraft.


A first model from which other models are developed.


The propulsive force that moves something forward.


the amount of gravitational pull exerted onto an object.

Teacher Background

Glider Configuration

The basic parts of a glider are shown in figure 1.

This configuration is typical of standard, high performance boost gliders. We will see that other arrangements of the main aerodynamic surfaces are possible, as with the Space Shuttle which combines the wing and horizontal stabilizer into one delta wing. Any object in flight, be it a rocket or glider, will react to an offset disturbing force by rotating around the Center of Gravity (CG) of the object. The CG, also called the Center of Mass, is essentially the balance point of the object.

Any force that acts through the CG of a rocket or glider will cause the model to accelerate in the direction the force is acting. A force that does not act directly through the CG will also produce a torque, or turning action, that will cause the model to rotate around the CG. A torque, also called the moment of the applied force, can be caused by aerodynamic forces on fins or wings, an off axis engine thrust, or any other force acting on the model. The strength of a torque is the product of the strength of the force and the distance of the force line from the CG.

Axes Rotation Diagram

Figure 2 defines the main axes and rotational motions of a glider. A motion around the lateral axis that causes the nose of the glider to rise or fall is called a pitch. A motion of the glider turning to either side is called a yaw. A rotation around the longitudinal axis of the glider is called a roll.

Aerodynamic Forces

Aerodynamics Diagram
Four important forces act on an aircraft Figure 2 – Rotation Axes and Motions during flight, as shown in figure 3. Thrust is the force provided by the airplane’s engine, usually by a spinning propeller or lift the reaction from jet or rocket engine exhaust. A glider, after it has been launched to altitude, does not have a thrust force acting on it. Weight, velocity the force of gravity acting on the mass of the aircraft, acts through the CG of the plane in a thrust downward direction. The aircraft must counteract the weight force in order to stay in the sky. The motion weight of the aircraft through the air produces an aerodynamic force which we break into two components: Lift, which acts Figure 3 – Aerodynamic Forces on an Aircraft perpendicular (at right angles) to the aircraft’s direction of motion and drag, which acts directly opposite the direction of motion through the air.

For a powered airplane flying at constant velocity at a constant altitude, the upward pointing lift force is used to balance the weight force. The thrust of the engine counterbalances the drag force (which tends to slow down the airplane) so that the aircraft can continue moving forward. This forward motion is important because it creates the lift force.
Balanced Forces Diagram

A glider has no thrust force to counteract the drag force that tends to slow down the glider. As a result, a glider cannot maintain a level flight at constant speed and altitude. An aircraft in steady gliding flight is always descending relative to the air around it. The glider is essentially trading off altitude to maintain its velocity.

Figure 4 shows the balance of forces acting on a glider descending in a steady glide at constant velocity. The glider follows a path which slopes at an angle below horizontal called the glide path angle, which we denote by the Greek letter ©. The direction of the glider’s motion along the glide path is shown by the velocity arrow on the diagram. (Notice that the glider’s longitudinal axis is not pointing along the direction of motion, but slightly above the glide path at angle <, (called the angle of attack). The lift force, which always acts at a right angle to the velocity through the air, is tilted forward from vertical at an angle equal to ©. The lift and drag forces on the glider add together as shown to form the resultant force F, which balances the weight force. Because all forces F on the glider are balanced there is no net force to cause lift an acceleration, so the glider will continue at constant velocity, moving along the glide slope at constant speed (this is Newton’s first law of motion in operation, by the way).

The angle of the glide slope depends on the ratio of the lift to the drag (L/D). The larger the lift-to-drag ratio is, the shallower the glide slope and the farther the glider will travel horizontally before reaching the ground. Some full sized sailplane gliders have L/D ratios as high as 40. A typical model rocket boost glider may have a lift-to-drag ratio around 3. Contrary to what you velocity might expect, trimming your glider to fly at its maximum L/D will allow it to fly farthest horizontally, but it will not weight result in the greatest duration (the length of time in the air). Duration depends on the sink rate, or downward velocity, which depends on the glide angle and the glide speed. Maximum duration is achieved by trimming Figure 4 – Balanced Forces on a Glider the glider to fly at a higher angle of attack, which results in a slower glide speed that more than compensates for the slightly steeper glide slope.

Airfoil Shapes

Lift and Drag

As an object moves through the air, it experiences an aerodynamic force. Lift is the component of that flat plate (poor airfoil) aerodynamic force which acts perpendicular (at a right angle) to the direction of motion through the air. Air flowing past the wing of an airplane produces the lift that keeps the symmetrical (Streamlined) plane in the air. Lift is also the force that acts on the fins of a regular model rocket to keep it stable in flight. Drag is the component of the aerodynamic force that acts in the same direction as the relative airflow. Any time lift is produced, flat bottom you also get drag — it’s unavoidable. But an efficient glider wing will produce as much lift as possible with as little drag as possible. This is accomplished by using wings with under cambered specially shaped cross-sections called airfoils.

Figure 5 shows a selection of different airfoil shapes. This airfoil is certainly not the most efficient shape possible (no single convex – concave airfoil shape is best for all situations) but it is fairly easy for modelers to produce this shape. The distance between the leading and trailing edges is called the chord (or chord Figure 5 – Airfoil Shapes length) of the airfoil. The reference line drawn between the leading and trailing edges is also sometimes called the chord (or chord line). The maximum thickness of the airfoil is typically 5% to 15% of the chord length. The high point of the airfoil is located 25% to 35% of the chord length back from the leading edge. The leading edge may be rounded (as shown) or may be nearly sharp. The trailing edge has a sharp taper.


Each Student Needs:

Student Design Portfolio

Paper 8.5″ x 11″



3″ x 5″ Notecards

The Class Needs:

Art Supplies (Variety Needed)

Measuring Wheel or Yardstick

Unit Plan

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Student Portfolio

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PowerPoint Presentations

Project Introduction
The Story of the Estes Centurion

Vocabulary Presentation


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