Designing a Hovercraft

Emily Morgan, Karen Ansberry, and Susan Craig NSTA Science & Children Article
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Article , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Activity
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



Students are introduced to the trial, error, and redesign of the engineering process in the book  Captain Arsenio: Adventures and (Mis) adventures in Flight by Pablo Bernasconi. In a follow up activity, students consider specific criteria and constraints while designing a model hovercraft. Students learn about the forces acting on the hovercraft and how these forces affect its motion. 

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 5
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 3
  • Upper Elementary
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

3-PS2-1 Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object.

Clarification Statement: Examples could include an unbalanced force on one side of a ball can make it start moving; and, balanced forces pushing on a box from both sides will not produce any motion at all.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to one variable at a time: number, size, or direction of forces. Assessment does not include quantitative force size, only qualitative and relative. Assessment is limited to gravity being addressed as a force that pulls objects down.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
To fully meet this performance expectation, it is suggested to address the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of the hovercraft. As suggested in the lesson, after the students make and observe their first CD hovercraft, a discussion should follow about the direction of the forces acting on the hovercraft. Students should label a diagram with arrows showing these forces acting on their hovercraft: the push from their hand, gravity (down), and friction and air resistance (pointing in the opposite way the hovercraft is moving). After this activity, students will then be planning and conducting four (4) different hovercraft trials. The students can experiment with different amounts of air, different shape balloons, and different surfaces on the bottom of the CD to investigate the forces of motion. The students will then need to explain the evidence of the forces acting upon each of their trials.

3-5-ETS1-3 Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Following specific criteria the students are going to plan 4 different designs that they will test. To best meet this performance expectation, it is suggested that students change or control the 'variables' as suggested: Try different shaped balloons, different amounts of air and/or different surfaces under the CD for optimum movement. In the supplied student handout, students are asked to mark which criteria and constraints each design meets. The criteria for the hovercraft: 1) Captain Arsenio is carried from “Here” to “There” 2) Captain Arsenio (the marshmallow) must stay aboard the hovercraft at all times The hovercraft design includes the following constraints: 1) The hovercraft is powered by the air of only one balloon 2) You must use only the supplies your teacher approves Teachers are encouraged to have student groups engage in conversations about meeting those specific criteria and constraints. When the students complete the observations of the motion of each of the 4 designs, they should have the opportunity to redesign to see what can be improved to make one hovercraft that will move from 'here' to 'there'.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
It is suggested to introduce the word 'variable' to the students so they can document what was changed in each hovercraft they designed. Ask students to describe what they changed in each design and explain why they made those changes.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
To best meet this core idea, ask students as they are testing their designs, why the hovercraft is sitting still before they push it? Have the students discuss what caused the hovercraft to slow down? Why did some of the hovercrafts move faster? How hard did they push? Introduce the words gravity, air resistance and friction into the discussion. Ask students if they push the balloon and the hovercraft doesn't go anywhere, what's the net force? (0, likely due mostly to friction with the ground and a little to air resistance). It is suggested that students be given more opportunities to experience the concepts of balanced and unbalanced forces first hand.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
It is suggested that students explain what forces acted upon their hovercraft to cause it to slow down. In the first activity, the students are encouraged to explain why the hovercraft moved differently with the cap open or closed. Have students explain why the cause and effect looked a bit different for each design.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This resource integrates the performance expectation of planning and conducting an investigation along with the core idea of forces and motion with an engineering practice. To more fully engage the students in the planning of the investigation, it is suggested to ask them what materials they may want to use prior to designing. Cause and effect relationships are tested and used to explain the change in motion of the CD hovercraft, but these relationships need to be made explicit with the students. Students should be given ample room and time to be able to explain and draw (with arrows) what forces were acting upon their hovercrafts.

  • Instructional Supports: Students are presented with a scenario that engages them in multiple practices that work together with disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts to design a solution. A worksheet is available for the students with directions that include specific criteria and constraints for the project. To differentiate the instruction more space may be needed to explain and diagram with arrows, the forces that are acting upon their hovercraft. It is also suggested to provide opportunities for the students to clarify and justify their ideas through discussion and in their flight diaries just as Captain Arsenio did in the opening story. Giving the students ample choices for the materials to use may also be helpful. A PBS Dragonfly video ( may be beneficial to watch after the students have already figured out the phenomenon on their own. Supplemental resources from NSTA:

  • Monitoring Student Progress: To best monitor student progress it is suggested to have the students draw diagrams showing with arrows the forces that they think are acting upon their hovercraft. Encourage the student to explain (after their trials) that gravity, air resistance, and friction all slow the motion of the hovercrafts.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Although there are good quality video links to help guide instruction, there is no interactive technological for this lesson.