Paper planes, martial arts and cake: Creative approaches to science education

Paper planes, martial arts and cake are all pretty high on the like list for kids. So how can we use these interests to connect kids with science?

Scientific concepts make more sense when you experience them in action. It’s easier to understand the physics of a thrust force when you throw a paper plane, for example. And you can feel the momentum of a punch when you’re holding the bag it hits.

Learning through real-world activities like this can reframe science in a language that kids understand and relate to.



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Science that soars

Photo: Loves Data

James Norton’s love of paper planes won him and a friend, Dylan Parker, a place in the semi-finals of the paper plane world championships. While James didn’t make the finals, their story inspired the box-office hit movie ‘Paper Planes,’ and led them to co-found Paper Pilots.

“Paper Planes are just one of those beautiful examples where you can teach something that’s quite complicated in a really simple way,” he says.

Paper planes demonstrate forces – lift, drag, thrust and weight, as well as aerodynamics, laminar flow and wing tip vortexes. In the Paper Pilot workshops, students in years 3–7 discuss and test these forces with various designs of planes.

“The feedback loop is immediate,” says Norton, “If you don’t fold the correct way you’ll see your plane doesn’t fly too well, and you have to trim it or fix it up or refold it to get it working.

“Making paper planes is all about problem solving,” says Norton. “And it has beautiful crossovers with art and math, science and engineering.”

Learn more about Paper Pilots.


Science with a kick

Emily Hall, a karate practitioner and former physics high school teacher, is the Science Teaching Coordinator for The Science Academy at Otago University, New Zealand. Her Masters of science communication research found that people with experience in martial arts did better on a physics concept test than people with none.

This led her to create Fight Like a Physicist workshops for high school students. “There is so much physics in karate,” says Hall. Physics concepts like centre of mass and balance become instantly relevant when you’re confronted with a strong front kick.

“I usually get someone to stand up and I say ‘Well now I’m going to punch you as hard as I can,” says Hall. It’s a way to talk about momentum – the stoppability of an object. In this case, the stoppability of Hall’s punch.  

“We talk about the difference between me just punching you, and having a bag in front of you,” Hall says. “That bag will be made up of something soft and as I punch it, it’s going to crumple and that’s going to take time. So even though the momentum of my punch will be the same, because I’ve increased the time that it’s impacting, you’re not going to feel as much force.”

Watch a Fight Like A Physicist workshop in action.


Science good enough to eat

Tracy Tam, founder of cake and cookie service The Project Counter, is using cakes to inspire kids interest in science. “Because that’s what science is all about. It’s about curiosity,” she says. “I give them something fun, give them something engaging, but slip some science into it.”

One of Tam’s creations is a cake that lets kids take core samples of the Earth using straws. The planet shaped cake has layers that mimic molten lava with icing, and an inner core with red velvet cake. “When the kids get to drill into it they realise the Earth is not just oceans, or water, or dirt,” Tam says.

Tam uses her background in engineering to build cakes with challenging structural feats. “Building support for a cake is a bit like building a skyscraper,” she says. “If you give it the right support you can build a cake that is 10 metres tall.”

See more of Tam’s delicious creations.


Header image: Michelle Kilpatrick
Carmen Spears

Author: Carmen Spears

Carmen is a freelance writer who won the opportunity to intern with Refraction Media in October of 2018. She is constantly curious and enjoys sharing intriguing stories about STEM.


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