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December 2, 2011 Newton, Rate Calculations, and Hovercraft By Stacey Burt
Grades 6–8

    Several years ago (about nine, actually) there was a video on the Internet of a student’s science fair project — a homemade hovercraft — that went viral. I LOVED it and immediately told my husband that we needed to build one for my math and science classes. What a perfect way to teach Newton’s laws of motion and rate calculations!




    Building the Hovercraft

    The idea is simple. You’ll need plywood, a really long extension cord, a tarpaulin, a heavy-duty staple gun, a table saw, a coffee can lid, an electric leaf blower, a bike helmet, a few other tools and items, and about a day to buy materials and construct the hovercraft. If you search the Internet today, you can find YouTube videos showing how to build this simple contraption. The directions that I used all those years ago can be found on Science Buddies. This is a great site with detailed information on how to construct a hovercraft your students can ride while they experiment.


    Hovercraft Science and Math Lessons

    After the first day, the excitement and newness will wear off, and the students will be able to attend to the science and math at hand, especially if they know that they will all have the opportunity to ride the hovercraft. Here is a list of topics and content that I teach in my classroom using the hovercraft:

    1. Velocity Calculations: Perform these calculations both when the loads (or students) are on the hovercraft and not on the hovercraft.
    2. Newton’s First Law (Law of Inertia): Discuss and demonstrate how inertia works while a student is riding on the hovercraft.
    3. Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Observe how the amount of force and mass are directly related to acceleration by changing the mass of the rider on the hovercraft.
    4. Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Students can experience Newton’s third law firsthand as they ride the hovercraft.

    I would suggest taking two to three days with the hovercraft. Be very deliberate in touching on each of the four topics in depth. I would suggest purchasing some gloves to wear while pulling the riders by the extension cord. I would also practice with a rider and without a rider before the actual lab.




    Final Suggestions

    I have used my hovercraft for about ten years now and have only had to replace the tarpaulin once. I have also used it in tiled hallways, gymnasiums, and cafeterias. You definitely want to use it indoors to reduce the amount of friction on the tarp. For fun, you may even want to borrow some bowling pins from the P.E. department and use the hovercraft to knock them down. You can discuss angle of attack and projectiles with the students.

    Finally, you may want to have the students construct a tabletop hovercraft first to understand the basic principles behind the working of hovercraft. You can find directions for these all over the Internet. You may also want to show segments of the MythBusters episode in which they build a hovercraft before and during your labs. All-in-all, the hovercraft labs have proven to be one of my students’ favorites, as well as one of mine.

    Happy hovering—



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