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Spy Gliders

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are air vehicles which lack onboard passengers and crew. They can be autonomous “drones” or remotely piloted vehicles. In this module, students are challenged to develop possible solutions to the engineering design problem of developing a UAV that is capable of carrying a payload over a given distance. Students select a specific use for their glider (reconnaissance, delivering supplies, etc.). They then test different glider designs and materials. Students experiment with adding a payload to their glider. After adding the payload, students optimize their glider design.

As students design their gliders, they explore the impact of the forces acting on the glider. In particular, students investigate how changes in weight impact the flight of the glider. Students test and revise their solutions, justifying their design revisions with evidence from previous tests and by incorporating science ideas.

NGSS addressed by this module:
MS-PS2-2   MS-ETS1-1   MS-ETS1-3   MS-ETS1-4

Grade Band: 6-8

Watch the Video

Engineering Design in the Classroom: Spy Gliders

Download the Lessons

Entire Unit: Spy Gliders
DAYS 1–10: Spy Gliders Teacher Handbook Download

DAY 1: Define the Problem — Criteria and Constraints
Students are introduced to the design problem by learning about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Students consider criteria and constraints as they decide on a purpose for their designed system. Download

DAY 2: How Planes Fly
Students investigate the forces involved in flight and create a series of models to explain their developing ideas about flight. Students then design prototype airplanes to test their ideas. Download

DAY 3: How Weight Affects Flight
Students are given an engineering design challenge to modify a Styrofoam airplane to travel a certain distance while carrying a payload (certain number of paper clips). Download

DAYS 4 & 5: Spy Gliders Materials
Student teams explore what materials to use based on strength and weight. Part of the time involves brainstorming and researching materials used on other planes and gliders, with the rest dedicated to hands-on material testing. Download

DAYS 6, 7, 8 & 9: Construction, Testing, and Optimization
On these planning, building, and testing days, students bring together what they learned about glider shape, payload, and construction materials, as they work in teams to create their gliders. Download

DAY 10: Final Presentation
Students engage in testing and design optimization. Download

Download Additional Resources

Spy Gliders Student Notebook Download


The materials created by this collaboration were taught by the authoring teachers in Puget Sound and Houston and in 2015, a second group of teachers taught the lessons and provided feedback to improve the modules. As part of a second iteration of the modules, the senior science editor at Teaching Channel worked with Achieve to integrate the teachers’ feedback while more closely aligning the modules to The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) call for significant shifts in the way science is taught and learned. In 2016, a panel of science experts from around the country convened for a two day training with Achieve to learn how to incorporate the Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products (EQuiP) Rubric for Science. As part of the iterative process of improvement, the expert reviewers then completed an EQuIP Rubric for each module. Teaching Channel's senior science editor combined the reviewers input to create a third iteration of the modules that promotes a close alignment to standards while honoring the original expertise of the authoring teachers and engineers.

Centennial Education Partner Resources

"I made sure to remind them [the students] that the failure points – not just the quantitative data, but the qualitative data that they are gathering – is just as important."

Julia Ward
8th Grade Teacher, Seattle,

Partners at the Institute for Science and Math Education at the University of Washington and Educate Texas were instrumental in teacher recruitment and the necessary training for this initiative.