Christopher Skinner
From Discourse 20

Christopher Skinner. The author’s middle school students build kites in an engineering-design class called Project Future.

I grew up on a kite field. Several days, weeks, and even months of my childhood were spent with Eddys, edos, box kites, rokkakus, stunt kites, Chinese dragons, and sode-dakos (to name a few). Kites have taken me to locations across the United States and beyond; I’ve flown a kite above the Great Wall of China, among the hustle and bustle of London, and on a cow pasture in Thailand. These kite excursions with my father have given me a world of cultural knowledge, a lifetime of fun experiences and memories, and colorful acquaintances such as Dave Gomberg, Peter Lynn, and Modegi-san. Every year from kindergarten through high school, one of my teachers would discover that my father was a kiteflier, and he would be invited to spend a few hours or more teaching my classes about kites: kite flying, kites as sport, kites as art, kites in history, kites in physics, and the geometry of kites. Sometimes he’d even return to my former teachers’ classrooms, several years after I’d left, to open the world of kites to new eyes. By now, he probably has spent more time teaching about kites in elementary schools than I did attending.

Perhaps I should back up and explain that my father is Scott Skinner of the Drachen Foundation. I have known him to be a kiteflier, a kitemaker, a kite educator, a kite philanthropist, and a kite historian, but I am sure that in the world of kites he may be many more things. After he retired from the Air Force, I suppose kites kept him connected to the world of aeronautics. I know that my love of science began at the end of a kite string. My father and his kites taught me from a very young age about Bernoulli’s principle, Newton’s laws, and even the sun’s role in atmospheric heat causing winds. Not surprisingly, when I left for college, he gave me a beautiful red sode-dako-shaped kite, in my father’s American patchwork quilting style, that resembles a bright red bird. I flew it during the first week of classes at University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB) each of my four years as an undergraduate. It may still be a bit salt- encrusted after its last flight landed it in the Pacific Ocean.

This year kites have returned to my life. I am now 37 years old, with a Master’s of Education from UCSB, and for the past 12 years I have been an 8th grade science teacher, currently at Escalante Middle School in Durango, Colorado. Over my 12 years as an educator, kites have found a few niches in my curriculum. While teaching students about physics, lift, drag, and even gravity, kites would make cameo appearances in the form of examples, images, and short demonstrations. Kites had roles during interdisciplinary studies when my colleagues and I taught about symmetry, kinetic art, Asian history, or measurements.

This year kites have taken a starring role. In addition to my regular science classes, I teach one period per day of an elective called Project Future. Project Future is an engineering design and challenge class where students apply scientific principles to complete various challenges: soda bottle rockets, mouse trap powered cars, balsa wood sail boats, hydraulic arms and fighting robots, rubber band powered moon-rovers, popsicle stick towers designed to withstand high winds, crash-test vehicles that protect their egg passenger, and many more fun and challenging projects.

One year ago, when I was informed that I would be teaching Project Future, my first call was to my father. I knew that kites would now have a starring role in my new curriculum. After several conversations, my planning and preparation yielded over a month’s worth of (affordable) kite related lessons and challenges. The unit starts small; a quick folded-and-scissor-cut kite made from a bamboo barbecue skewer, a sheet of (brightly colored) printer paper, and some scotch tape. The second project uses a reel of string, a pile of plastic drinking straws, and some tissue paper to build a four-celled tetrahedral. While making these first two kites, I spend time teaching my students about how the roles of symmetry, dihedral stability, rigidity, and flexibility work together to produce lift using Bernoulli’s principle. I also show them how drag and air resistance can be captured and utilized to balance the lift, increase stability, and straighten flight orientation.

But kites are more than a physics lesson. They are also a study in engineering and construction as well as being creative, artistic, and beautiful. Using sheets of tissue paper, a roll of string, Elmer’s Glue-All, and spars from a disassembled bamboo window shade I found on eBay for $10 (a single shade has provided enough spars to last me for several more years), my students are taught some basic construction and reinforcement techniques to build larger paper kites. They are challenged to design and build any one of six different kite shapes (Eddy, edo, rokkaku, hex, sode-dako, or delta). Prior to construction, each pair of students is required to submit blueprints that include the measurements of all their spars, as well as the length, width, and proportions of their paper sail. Artistic plans are also submitted that demonstrate some pattern or design and any additional construction necessary to complete their kite. As students complete the construction of these first freely-designed kites, they are taught how to flex horizontal spars which creates a dihedral effect (previously achieved by the triangular, three- dimensional shape of their first two kites) that eliminates the kite’s ability to roll about the vertical axis. Once the bridle is attached to the vertical spine, students are taught how to adjust the flight angle and add drag, both of which increase the flight stability of the kite. My class of nearly 30 students, flying their creations in the light early morning breeze of southern Colorado, immediately transforms this school’s football field into the kite fields of my youth (complete with Mary Poppins’ “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” blasted over my iPod speakers, a permanent part of those early memories).

Photographs by Christopher Skinner. Students’ kites take to the skies over Escalante Middle School in Durango, Colorado.

Photographs by Christopher Skinner. Students’ kites take to the skies over Escalante Middle School in Durango, Colorado.

Photographs by Christopher Skinner. 8th grade students working with kites learn about physics, engineering, construction, and art.

Photographs by Christopher Skinner. 8th grade students working with kites learn about physics, engineering, construction, and art.

But what have my students really learned? Do they really understand the concepts they’ve been taught? Can they apply these lessons to new circumstances? These are questions that plague every teacher. Now given new construction requirements (building with multiple vertical spines, or only diagonal spines, or with non-dihedral flexed spars) and design possibilities (removal of panels and other sail cut-outs, roller-modifications to rokkakus, and new shapes such as genkis and doperos) student pairs are challenged to design and fly a unique new kite, but they must solve the construction, symmetry, dihedral, bridling, and other physics challenges that these new shapes offer. The first time my students tackled designing and constructing this fourth kite, I was expecting a mixture of successes and failures. What I didn’t expect was that the groups whose kites struggled to fly did not want help “fixing” their designs, and while they may have sought some advice, they were determined to get their kites to fly without my intervention.

During my second semester, with a second round of students designing and learning about kites, I decided to take their kite- building experience a step further. While preparing my entire Project Future curriculum, looking for fun engineering challenges suitable for students, I stumbled across a website called It is a crowd-sourced website where people can find, read, and post instructions about all varieties of how-to or DIY subjects (near the holidays I used plans found here to teach my students how to make duct tape wallets). After creating an account using my school-issued email address, I gave each group of students the password. In just this past week, they have completed a multi-week project in which they were asked to build and document the construction of a new kite and then create a DIY set of instructions and publish them to the site (complete with materials, pictures, captions, and step-by-step guidelines for constructing their kites). I read these student-created kite building instructions and I am many things: proud of what they have published, disappointed that we didn’t have enough time to fix all the middle- school grammar, thoughtful about ways to increase the science-content in their instructions, and excited about the myriad of possibilities that both kites and this website will provide for my next year’s Project Future students. I am also exploring new opportunities that studying kites can provide for all students to learn about flight, physics, and the principles of science.

Several of my students’ Instructables can be reached online: