Part 1
Introduction to Walkalong Gliding and Why Foam?
Transcript of the narration below
Back to the foam glider home page
Back to the sciencetoymaker home page

This video introduces walkalong gliders and traces why I came to think very thin foam gliders are better to start with.

Click on any picture or here
If YouTube is blocked for you, try this SchoolTube equivalent.

Hi, it’s Slater, aka sciencetoymaker. I’m giving a presentation about foam walkalong gliders at my state’s Technology Student Association. I need some video for that anyhow, so I figured I’d make a progress report for people who have expressed interest in do-it-yourself foam gliders. Some very exciting things are happening.


But let me start a little further back. I’m a technology teacher in a small school district in rural Pennsylvania, called Jersey Shore. It’s landlocked hundreds of miles from the Jersey seashore, has nothing to with the TV reality show, but is otherwise well named.


As a technology teacher in a middle school I try to develop hands-on projects that allow kids to apply science in an interesting, kinetic way and also teach something.


My students and I started getting into walkalong flight a few years ago with simple things called tumbling wings. I teach video production as well, and I made a video about tumblewings and tried to show the principle whereby they levitate, not just glide down. It turns out this is the same principle that can keep hang glider pilots up for hours. But instead of a big mountain that deflects wind upward, we make our own mountain—such as a large piece of cardboard. And we move our mountain, creating relative wind that swooshes up and over. And just as we can surf on the leading edge of a wave of water, we can surf on this wave of air diverted by the board.


Taking the hang glider analogy a step further, I created a paper airplane design that I call the origami hang glider. We made them from phone book paper—which weighs less than printer paper—and some students got so good they could levitate the origami hang gliders with only their hands. It was like science fiction.


So about a year ago I made another video series about making origami hang gliders and there was interest all around the world. It opened up some doors, too. The kind folks at the St. Louis Science Center hosted a gathering of walkalong flight inventors and innovators. We introduced thousands of museum visitors to the magic. There was a lot of cross pollination of ideas among friends, too. I was able to document the beginning of walkalong flight—which was born out of human powered airplane flight, turns out—and lots of cool branches are forming and evolving.


But some problems with paper gliders were emerging. Instead of getting feedback from people who had made the glider, as I do with a lot of projects, I was getting the feeling that it was just too difficult for people to start with if they didn’t have previous flight experience. It might be the 4th step, not the first. And paper has a particular problem. No, it’s not fire. It’s water. It doesn’t even have to get wet, just humidity in the air makes paper gliders limp and difficult.

One of my friends who was at the St. Louis gathering, an engineering student in Wisconsin named Michael Thompson, got me started making thin foam gliders. I was somewhat ambivalent about foam, which is a form of plastic. Plastic has public relations problems. When I was growing up, plastic was sometimes viewed as sort of a metaphor for phoniness and shallow culture.

Promiscuous plastic packaging uses a huge amount of petroleum, and despite the advertising from the plastic industry, a lot is not recycled.


But my relationship with plastic is complicated. I’m completely paralyzed below my knees—can’t wiggle a toe. I can hardly walk, but with plastic leg braces I can walk pretty well. So I really value plastic in some situations.

I discovered that my students had a much easier time learning to fly with foam gliders than with paper. So I developed a series of thin foam gliders to get my middle school students flying. It starts with a very simple form of tumble wing I call the big mouth. It’s easy to build and--because it's so slow-flying--it's relatively easy to learn to fly.

From there they make a small baby bug glider, a little more challenging to make but even more efficient to fly. It requires you to form a camber, or curve, in the front of wing for lift—which is a far better way to experience aerodynamics and airfoils than those simplistic, often erroneous diagrams that students are subjected to.


Finally, two sheets taped together make a bit more involved giant mama bug glider. We’ve discovered they’re even more efficient because bigger gliders are more efficient than smaller ones. They’re really good for advanced flying: three dimensional jousting or aerial dog fights, flying with only your hands, or your head, or just one hand.


From previous videos I know people from around the world are interested in what we're doing, and I think people want to connect as more than passive viewers. People want to make and fly them with their own hands. Science and technology teachers want an engaging way to turn their students on to aerospace that's not impossibly drawn-out or frustrating. I think we're succeeding.


The foam sheets barely fit into a standard business envelope. I sent off some kits with enough material for two tumblewings, a baby bug and a mama bug glider. I cut the thin sheets using a homemade hot-wire foam cutter, which fascinates my students. So I also included in the kits some hair-thin nickel chromium wire, used in conjunction with a 9 volt battery and some tableware to cut some scrap foam you have around the house. It’s crude but safe and fun.


Making your own actual glider sheets with a precise hot-wire cutter and finding the right kind of foam is a bit complicated and will be the subject of another video.


I’ve sent out the kits to friends, teachers and people I don't know, but who were kind enough to e-mail me with feedback about sciencetoymaker projects. These people will test them out as do-it-yourself projects without me there to help. If they survive the journey through the postal system and fly well, I have a vague plan to make the kits available.


I’m not a business person and I’ve never made money from the web site. I’m quite happy and well-paid as a teacher, and I think a for-profit operation would be incongruous with the spirit of what we've all pitched in to do at my school. I'm inclined to sell them for just a few dollars and direct the proceeds over to the non-profit development organization that sent me to the South Asian country of Bangladesh. That was sort of a coming of age experience for me. I certainly learned most of what I know about creative engineering and making do from the people in Bangladesh. It would be satisfying to do something doubly useful like that, but that's a few steps ahead.


In the mean time I’m keeping track of the new directions where new friends—these ordinary extraordinary people from around the world--are taking walkalong flight. You can find links in the text area, to the stories of where walkalong flight has come from and the very exciting directions it's going.

Back to the foam glider home page
Back to the sciencetoymaker home page