Parachute Engineering


Parachutes are designed to make a safe, gentle jump from an aircraft.  Parachutes are umbrella-shaped and made of light fabric. They work by creating air resistance, or “drag,” to slow down an object’s motion.  Without this air resistance, a falling object would continue to increase in speed until it reached the ground.  The more of the air’s mass that the parachute can “catch,” the slower it will fall.  Air resistance is what makes a feather fall more slowly than a bowling ball. If there were no air resistance, these two objects, despite their weight, would fall at exactly the same speed.

Question to Explore

How can we design and test a model parachute, ensuring that it opens as intended, withstands air resistance, and lands at a safe landing speed?


  • tissue paper
  • coffee filter
  • napkins
  • construction paper
  • newspaper
  • paper towels
  • string
  • tape
  • weights (such as washers)
  • measuring tape (to measure drop height)
  • ruler (for measuring circle radius)
  • stopwatch (for recording drop time)


Building the Parachute:

  1. Brainstorm characteristics of a good parachute.
  2. Sketch a design for your model parachute.
  3. Choose the material you will create your parachute out of and cut a circle. Some options include: tissue paper, napkin, construction paper, coffee filter, paper towels, newspaper
  4. Make a hole in the center of the shape.
  5. Cut six pieces of equal length string and tape them at equal distances around the edge of the shape.
  6. Tape the other ends of the string to a weight.

Testing the Parachute:

  1. Drop the parachute from a specific height and observe. Does the object drift gently down or sink like a rock? What variables will make a parachute better or worse?
  2. Record your observations.
  3. Repeat this process, modifying the variables to test effectiveness.  For example, you may try doubling the size of the parachute, testing out a new parachute material, a different string length, or more or less weight.
  4. Make sure to record your observations of each new test.

Follow Up Questions

  • What type of paper is the best material to make a parachute? Why?
  • What materials did not work well? Why?
  • What changes could you make to improve your design?

Other tests to try:

  • Once you’ve discovered the best paper material to use, test out different sized circles.  Find the circle with the optimal size.
  • Try parachutes with and without holes in the top, and different-sized holes.
  • Try different size weights being held by the parachute.  Find the optimal weight.
  • Make parachutes using different materials: options include plastics, cotton and nylon.
  • Test different designs to see which one can land a toy vehicle the most gently.