Storytelling is an important entrepreneurship skill. Whether pitching to investors, writing marketing copy, or leading teams…
Entrepreneurs must inspire others to take action.
In this exercise, students get to learn the importance of storytelling as they design and build one-of-a-kind paper aircraft and try to convince the rest of the class that their design will fly the best.
This exercise is based on the Kitty Hawk in the Classroom exercise originally published by Reginald Litz and colleagues in the International Review of Entrepreneurship and from the Airplane Contest Exercise published by Bradley George in Teaching Entrepreneurship: A Practice-Based Approach by Heidi Neck, Patricia Greene, and Candida Brush.
In this exercise students teams complete to see who can build, and pitch, the best performing paper airplane. Specifically, students will:
- Form teams
- Build the best paper airplanes they can
- Pitch their planes’ designs
- Votes on which team’s planes they think will perform the best
- Fly the planes
- Tally the scores for best planes and best pitches
- Reflective Discussion: What mattered more, the planes or the pitches?
- Pitches are as important as the product. Students learn that they can create the greatest products in the world, but it won’t do any good unless people know about them. In this exercise, the same points are available for great pitches as there are for great planes, but students inevitably spend more time perfecting their planes than their pitches.
- Pitches are prototypes too. Students will experiment with different plane designs throughout the exercise, but they’ll often neglect to iterate their pitch. Whether speaking to customers, investors, or team members, entrepreneurs should treat pitches like products – they need to be practiced, iterated, and improved upon to produce the best results.
Run this Exercise When…
…your students are just about to do their final pitch session of the class or in preparation for a pitch competition. Doing so will emphasize that your students should put more time energy into practicing and improve their pitches.
Want to try it?
Details are below.
Provide students with the following supplies:
- Paper for their aircraft – if you want to add an additional element of creativity to the exercise, you can provide a variety of colors, paper sizes and paper weights, i.e., notecards, card stock, paper plates, etc.
- One dollar in your country’s coins for each group (provide a variety if possible)
- Scotch tape
- Rubber bands
- Staples (and staplers)
- Binder clips
- Paper clips
Step 1: Identify a Leader
With students assembled in groups of 4-5, instruct each group to select a leader. Project the following image and tell them they have 2 minutes to identify a leader:
Step 2: The Task
Print out the following instructions and provide one copy to each group.
NOTE: Do not go over the instructions, and do not answer any clarifying questions students have. Answer any question with “You have your instructions.”
You are to design and create a paper aircraft capable of keeping one dollar of coins (or other local currency) aloft for as long (time) as possible while simultaneously transporting the coins as far (distance) as possible. The assignment is as follows:
- Your final aircraft design must use the same number of pieces of paper as the number of people in your group (for example, a group of four must create an aircraft that uses four pieces of paper in its design)
- Your plane must be designed to transport one U.S. dollar of coinage (or other local currency). You may choose the number and denomination of coins used; your only constant is that their total value must be exactly one dollar.
- You may not simply crumble paper into a ball; you must design an aerodynamically sensitive aircraft-based design, not a projectile
- The only permissible additions are tape, paper clips, staples, rubber bands, and binder clips.
- Your aircraft must leave the thrower’s hand and move 100% under its own power during the entire flight without touching another person
- You will have two minutes to pitch your design to your classmates and convince them that your design will fly the furthest (distance) and will stay aloft the longest (time).
- Your group’s performance is based on your aircraft’s performance (time and distance) and the number of votes your design gets from your classmates in each category (time and distance).
Step 3: The Exercise
Begin by explaining the voting rules. Each group is allowed one vote for only one team (not their own) on each dimension (time aloft and distance flown). Students can vote for different aircraft for each dimension.
Give students time to design their aircraft – roughly 10-15 minutes. Allow enough time for each group to pitch their aircraft for 1-2 minutes, for about 10 minutes for each group to fly their aircraft, and for about 15-20 minutes of debriefing).
Students will want to ask lots of questions, including where they will be throwing the aircraft, what you’re expecting in the pitch, the order of pitching, etc. Do not answer any questions – let the students know that you have provided all the instructions already and that they should get to work.
The Pitches and Voting
Have each team pitch their aircraft for 2 minutes max. Record each group’s vote on a chart on the board for the aircraft they think will perform best in each dimension (time and distance). Remind students that they cannot vote for their own design.
Take students to a predetermined location. This can be anywhere (we recommend somewhere close to your classroom to limit time on this step) – outdoors, a hallway, a gymnasium, in the classroom, etc. Each team gets one throw. Have a line delineated somehow that the thrower cannot cross, and record the time each aircraft stays aloft on a stopwatch. Have one or two trustworthy students mark and record where each aircraft first touches the ground.
Record the actual performance on the chart on the classroom board.
- 1 point if the group voted for the aircraft that flew the furthest distance
- 1 point if the group voted for the aircraft that stayed aloft the longest (time)
- Rank aircraft based on distance flown (furthest distance gets the highest number)
- Rank aircraft based on time aloft (longest time aloft gets the highest number)
The highest score wins. Let students know that nobody will lose points, that you added that element to increase the perceived risk and the intensity of the exercise. Reward each winning group member extra credit, and reward the winning group leader additional extra credit.
There are several ways to debrief this activity, but one of the most powerful ones is for students to compare how they approached the iteration of their planes versus the iteration of their pitches.
Some interesting questions to reflect with students are:
- How many points were available for the best performing product? How does that compare to the number of points available for the best pitch?
- How many times do you think you tested and tweaked your plane’s designed? How does that compare to how the number of times you tested and tweaked your pitch?
- If you wanted to test and iterate your pitch more, how could you have done it?
- What was compelling about the pitches?
- How did your group decide to vote? How important was the aircraft itself, and how important was the pitcher’s confidence and way of presenting the aircraft?
- Why do you think others did or did not vote for your design?
- How would you change your pitch if you had a chance to present your design again?
- If your plane represents your product, and your pitch represents the way you market your product, communicate with your customers, talk with investors and collaborate with your teammates, how can you apply what you learned today to entrepreneurship at large?
As mentioned previously, students will often spend far more time on building their product than they will honing the stories they tell about it, which negatively affects their performance in this exercise as it does in the real world.
Other great debriefing questions include:
- How did you view the coins? Did you see it as a negative constraint, or an opportunity to improve performance? Why?
- How did you view the optional supplies? Did you see them as a negative constraint, or an opportunity to improve performance? Why?
- How did you decide who your “thrower” would be.
These are great discussion questions because they offer a chance to talk about how successful entrepreneurs turn seemingly negative constraints into opportunities. Additionally, most teams will not experiment with different team members as the thrower. Instead, most tend to identify a student who is “good at throwing”, such as a baseball or softball player. This is a great opportunity to highlight the importance of prototyping everything related to execution.
Get the Paper Airplane Storytelling Lesson Plan
We’ve created a detailed lesson plan for the “Paper Airplane Storytelling” exercise to walk you and your students through the process step-by-step.
It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers. Please feel free to share it.
In upcoming posts, we will share more exercises to engage your students and more tips and tricks to improve your evaluations.
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