Washougal students create, test balloon-powered hovercrafts

CRGE students apply science and engineering concepts to build crafts out of CDs, balloons and bottle caps

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A Columbia River Gorge Elementary School student watches a balloon hovercraft glide along the classroom floor in the spring of 2024. (Contributed photo courtesy of the Washougal School District)

Columbia River Gorge Elementary School fourth-grade students applied science and engineering concepts to build, test, and measure the results of balloon-powered hovercraft races earlier this year.

Students in Khrista McBride’s and Samantha Howards’ classrooms created the hovercrafts from CDs, balloons and bottle caps.  The balloons were connected to the cap, which was glued onto the CD, creating a small gap for air to flow out, resulting in a small amount of lift to let the hovercrafts glide on hard surfaces. 

“Students exploring is the most natural way to learn,” Howard said.

Each student tested their hovercraft in several settings and with different sizes of balloons, and measured the distance traveled so they could analyze the resulting data and draw conclusions about what makes a successful hovercraft. 

“After the lesson, students reflected on the notes they gathered, and were surprised by the smaller balloons working better than large balloons,” McBride said. “The smaller size allowed their hovercraft to move further and faster due to the continuous volume of air flow.”  

Students also found that designing the hovercraft with the shiny side of the CD facing down worked better than the label side. Students found this through “​​their comparisons and discussion, which led them to decide that the smooth side was the better one facing down,” according to the teachers.

“They learned that reducing friction made a difference,” they added.

Students also noticed differences between distance traveled due to the flooring, including that the hovercraft traveled less distance on the rug than hard materials; and learned the practical application of a number of science concepts and how things like friction and weight can influence the outcome of an experiment.