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The Fun and Physics of Kite Flying

© Copyright DiscoverThis

Thomas J. Benson loves kites. "I like things that fly," says the senior research engineer at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. "I started out many years ago on the playground flying kites and now I make my career as an aerospace engineer Ė and they are connected."

"Engineers are just people who solve problems and try to build things to help make the world a nicer place," Benson continues, "and in doing that you have to develop a feel for things." That feel, he says, is usually developed at an early age. "Itís funny how many guys in my building (at NASA) started out down the trail when we were in fifth or sixth grade, flying kites or building model airplanes."

Aerodynamic Forces At Your Fingertips
Building and flying kites, Benson says, are excellent ways to bring math and science concepts to life for children of all ages. The dynamics necessary to make a kite fly, for example, mirror those for airplanes. "Balancing the forces of lift and drag and weight and the tension in the string (of a kite)," Benson explains, "is the same (as) an airplane when it flies, balancing lift and drag and thrust and weight." When you fly a kite, these relatively abstract concepts become concrete. "A kid on the end of a kite string feels a force right in his hand," says Benson, "and he knows that the force changes with the velocity of the wind because he feels it pull harder."

Kites can illustrate any number of scientific concepts, including Newtonís laws of motion, Bernoulli's Theorem, and many other physics fundamentals. Take balance, for example. "We study Öall kinds of esoteric things about where the center of gravity is and how the forces offset from the center of gravity create a pitching moment and blah, blah, blah," says Benson. "A kid who flies a kite knows youíve got to move the knot string around a little bit to get the thing to balance."

With very young children, simply thinking about air can be new. Most children think air is nothing, Benson notes, but dealing with moving air is a major issue for aerospace engineers. You canít see it, and if you try to catch it in order to study it, it stops moving and loses its effect. Flying kites is a great introduction to the way air moves and the problems involved with controlling flying objects.

Thereís a lot of great science involved, but as parents our first step is simply to enjoy flying kites with our children. As their interest increases, we can introduce math and science concepts as they relate to our play. "Most of us start out playing with things and from there you get an interest in how can I make this better, how does that really work," says Benson. "(Then) when people present the science and the math to you, itís not done in the abstract. Itís got real meaning."

Making Math Meaningful
While you can use math to calculate the altitude at which your kite is flying, most of the math comes into play when you begin designing your own kites. Benson suggests starting with box kites like the ones he built as a boy. With a box design, geometry is key, but measurement is important as well, and you can even introduce concepts like budgeting and cost analysis. As you figure out how big to cut your cloth or paper, how long your sticks need to be, and how much string to attach, says Benson, "you start tripping right into the math." And donít forget to figure out how much itís going to cost, or how much you might save if you use different materials. "Those kinds of things end up being engineering questions when you build a 747," Benson adds.

In order to help kids figure out how to design their own kites, Benson developed an online Kite Modeler available on the NASA "Beginnerís Guide to Kites" website. Using the program, he says, you can see the effects of changing the size of various parts or using different building materials, but Benson encourages kids to test out their designs by building and flying their own kites. "Use the computer to make some selections and then go build it and go try it," he says. "See whether the computerís right or wrong. Get your own experiences with it. In my world that I normally live in," he adds, "computational fluid dynamics, thatís called code validation," another valuable lesson for future scientists and engineers.

History on a String
There are even history lessons to be learned from kites. Did you know, for example, that the Wright Brothers tried to use giant kites to practice piloting their first airplanes? "They wanted to get a lot of flying time," Benson explains, "and the way they were going to do that was hook a couple of ropes off the end (of a glider), let the wind blow over, let it pick up, and it would just sit in the air and the pilot could practice for hours and hours on a big flying kite." Because of limitations in aerodynamic data available at the time, the brothers built their kite too small to hold a man, but even in 1900 the connection between kites and airplanes was clear.

During World War II, Benson continues, submarines running on the surface of the water often used Cody kites Ė basically box kites with wings Ė to fly antennae, facilitating long-range communication. And letís not forget Ben Franklin and his famous kite-flying discoveries!

Flying a Kite to Mars?
Benson is serious when he says that future astronauts and aerospace engineers will likely begin their careers as children flying kites. "The first person thatís going to walk on Mars is right now walking through some fifth grade classroom in the United States," he says. "The person doesnít know who she is, or he, but theyíre going to have to go down a road to end up on Mars and the road will probably start with flying kites or shooting model rockets or any of the things that have traditionally been the way Neil Armstrong started or John Glenn started or Eileen Collins started. We all started the same way."

Your mission? Get your kids excited about math and science and building and flying Ė and what better way than to get out in the sunshine with them and go fly a kite?

At discoverthis.com science kits, weíre proud to encourage future astronauts and engineers to soar by offering award-winning science kits and toys for every age and interest. Set your sights on the sky with some of our favorite flyers:

Before you set out on your kite flying adventures, please read Kite Safety Tips from Discover This.

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