Airplane Mechanic – SCOPES Digital Fabrication

Lesson Details

Grade Levels

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Brian Purvis
Brian Purvis
Fablab manager
Before becoming the manager of the GE Brilliant Career Lab, Brian leveraged his 18 years as a public school educator to open an integrated maker space at the heart of a Title 1 STEM elementary school.  During his career he… Read More


This lesson highlights an example of “Everyday in the life of an Airplane Mechanic”. What kind of work might an Airplane Mechanic do? Diagnose, adjust, repair, or overhaul aircraft engines and assemblies, such as hydraulic and pneumatic systems. What essential skills does this career require?

What You'll Need

Teacher Preparation:Supplies, facility needs, prerequisite skills and knowledge, student types, period length etc. classroom management.

Facility needs: laser cutter, space for testing of prototype planes and performance contests (long straight hallways, or outdoors is suggested) space for laser cutter and small group work, internet, the ability to charge a class set of computers.

Prerequisite Skills: Basic knowledge of the nature of force and friction and basic understanding of the scientific method.

Recommended resources: Knowledge of project-based learning is helpful when understanding and implementing the structure of this lesson (​​).

Materials List

Premade balsa wood airplane kits​(one kit per two class minimum, while you do not need the exact kit linked, having a similar kit greatly reduces the needed preparation time for the project), adhesive tape (roll per group), scissors (pair per group), box cutters (one per adult minimum, one per group ideal), rulers (class set), heavy-duty card stock (1 pack per two classes), 2 sheets of 24×12 ¼ inch thick cardboard per class, airplane body templates, science notebooks, computers with Inkscape.

The Instructions

Step One: Engage – Day #1 An engagement that sets the table for the learning objectives and piques student interest in concepts, careers, and fabrication.


  • Premade working balsa wood plane model
  • Ability for students to watch the video via streaming from YouTube

15 minutes


  1. The BCL instructor demonstrates the construction and flight of a premade balsa wood airplane (or a strong custom airplane model from a previous class).
  2. The BCL instructor engages students by challenging them to make their own working airplane models.
  3. The BCL instructor shows​​“GE: In the Wild Advanced Turboprop”​video incorporating an airshow with airplane engine construction and 3d printing.

Step Two: Explore – Day #1 Initial hands-on foray into concept.


  • A supply of premade balsa wood airplane parts sufficient for the class size (see above for recommendations)

At least 40 minutes

  1. The teacher groups the class into teams of 2-3 students for the activity.
  2. The BCL instructor and teacher provide the materials for the premade balsa wood airplanes for easy distribution to teams.
  3. The teacher explains the specific norms and classroom management for the activity, including areas that are reserved for testing, and baselines for documentation in student notebooks.
  4. The BCL instructor encourages innovation and creativity, while advising students of any limitations of the balsa wood models (these may vary depending on the nature of the models used, but could include if specific fuselages are only compatible with specific parts. In the models linked in the supply section this would include only narrow fuselages being compatible with the propeller systems.)
  5. Students are given a supply of transparent tape for repairing broken balsa wood parts.
  6. The BCL instructor emphasizes that this is a time for finding out “what works and what doesn’t?” with regards to the airplane flying, so that student designs of their own custom airplanes can be informed. Students are encouraged to document these discoveries via text or pictures in their science notebooks.
  7. At the end of the period the teacher informs students of the procedure for taking their planes apart and returning all materials in preparation for future classes.

Step Three: Explain – Day #2 (Connect content with explore and elaborate.)


  • A white board or large Post It notes for creation of the public matrix
  • A mechanism for students to watch the “How Do Airplanes Fly?” video
  • Laser Cutter
  • Computer with Inkscape.

35 minutes

Class begins with the teacher connecting the behaviors of the premade balsa wood planes to scientific concepts that are relevant to the curriculum. (Often these are drag/friction, propulsion/force, lift/force, and gravity). The teacher then segues into creating a matrix of these forces and discoveries students have made as to how the forces can be manipulated in order for the plane to fly better. This matrix should be left in a public space for reference and for students to add further discoveries. Additional steps are below.

  1. The BCL instructor shows the​​“How Do Airplanes Fly?”​video to further explain the​science behind the module.
  2. The BCL instructor uses the laser cutter to make cardboard fuselages for the student’s custom airplanes. As this takes place the BCL instructor describes how the laser cutter works and demonstrates how the patterns were made via Inkscape (an activity the students will be involved in the 6-8 hour modules).
  3. The BCL instructor will list and explain the steps of the design process as a model for student team workflow.

Step Four: Elaborate – Day #2-3 (Take content knowledge and utilize it to complete a challenge in design and fabrication process.)


  • Laser cut fuselages
  • Heavy card stock
  • Scissors
  • Box cutters
  • Writing utensils (colored pencils are the best)
  • Science notebooks/graph paper
  • Rulers

55 minutes or more spread over two days

Additional steps are below.

  1. The BCL instructor and teacher introduce the custom airplane module.
  2. Students are asked to take the given laser cut fuselages and combine them with custom wings and attachments created with cardstock to make flying model airplanes.
  3. Students should first design their wings on the cardstock, then cut them out with the scissors provided. Should students want thicker wings, they can cut out two or more copies and glue them together.
  4. Students are also instructed to carefully measure the needed slit in the fuselage for the wings to be attached and to draw it on the cardboard. (Depending on the teacher’s comfort with student use of box cutters, the students may cut this slit, OR they may come to the teacher/BCL instructor for the slit to be cut.)
  5. The teacher provides the procedures for teams to collect the materials for creating their custom planes.
  6. The BCL instructor encourages students to iterate on their wing design as they get feedback from testing them. Students should collect data on their designs and add to the matrix as they find methods that work best.)
  7. The BCL instructor and teacher inform the students airplane design will be evaluated the following day based on their ability to fly their airplane to a given target.
  8. Students utilize the provided materials to create custom working airplane models informed by their knowledge of science and data collected from successive experimentation.

Step Five: Evaluate – Day #4: (Compare student capability to use the content to meet a goal.)

Select a target goal that will evaluate how effectively students can control the flight of their custom aircraft.(Teachers may want to develop a rubric for scoring this that fits their class needs).


  • Science notebooks

55 minutes (depending on class size, the Brilliant Career Lab website evaluation may need to be left as a post activity with the teacher). Additional steps are below.

The teacher begins the module by returning to the matrix to synthesize student discoveries about how to manipulate the forces for added airplane model performance.

  1. Each student team uses their science notebook to give a short summary of how their airplane design evolved over the course of the module.
  2. Student teams evaluate​the effectiveness of their design by attempting to fly their model airplane to a target determined by the Teacher and BCL Instructor. Immediately after the flight students from other groups are asked to note three positive aspects of the airplane’s design. This is followed by the current group noting an aspect of their airplane that could use more improvement given time.
  3. Students use the ​Brilliant Career Lab website​to explore​GE careers to which they might best be suited. (The website provides an in depth questionnaire that gives guidance to students about career choices.)
  4. BCL instructor will share more information about the STEM career, Airplane Mechanic.

Providing an introduction into STEM careers that exist today in 2018 and the career they explored Airplane Mechanic.

Below is a list of STEM careers with GE (General Electric) that currently exist and/or are in high demand. These are all careers and job openings that exist today for GE.

Aircraft Powerplant Technician

Airframe Mechanics Technician

Aircraft Maintenance Technician

Aircraft Engine Specialist

Helicopter Engine Specialist

With your students, ask if they have heard of any of these jobs. What does a person in this position do? What part of S.T.E.M. is utilized in each of these roles? You may even ask students what STEM careers are interesting to them?

  • Everyday in the life of an Airplane Mechanic
    1. What activities might a Airplane Mechanic do?
      1. Airplane MechanicDiagnose, adjust, repair, or overhaul aircraft engines and assemblies, such as hydraulic and pneumatic systems.
      2. How can the essential skills be used in this line of work? See the link below for more information about essential skills.




NGSS Science & Engineering Practices

Grades 9-12 Practices

Practice 1: Asking questions and defining problems

Practice 2: Developing and using models

Practice 3: Planning and carrying out investigations

Practice 4: Analyzing and interpreting data

Practice 5: Using mathematics and computational thinking

Practice 6: Constructing explanations and designing solutions

Practice 7: Engaging in argument from evidence

Practice 8: Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Digital Fabrication Understanding – FabI Can Statements

(S.1) ​Safety: I can safely conduct myself in a Fab Lab, observe operations and follow general safety protocols under guidance from an instructor.

(DP.1) ​Design Process: I can modify an existing design under instructor guidance.

(DP.3) ​Design Process: I can create analog models (e.g. sketches, small physical models, etc.) to facilitate a design process.

(CAD.1) ​Computer Aided Design: I can draw a basic design using 2D Vector Graphics.

(MO.1) ​Machine Operation: I can safely observe digital fabrication machine working and describe their operation.

(F.1) ​Fabrication: I can assemble an object using prefabricated components.

Massachusetts Science and Engineering Standards

  1. Define a design problem that involves the development of a process or system with interacting components and criteria and constraints that may include social, technical, and/or environmental considerations.
  2. Develop and/or use a model (including mathematical and computational) to generate data to support explanations, predict phenomena, analyze systems, and/or solve problems.
  3. Plan and conduct an investigation, including deciding on the types, amount, and accuracy of data needed to produce reliable measurements, and consider limitations on the precision of the data.

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