Evolution in Plane Sight

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In this activity, learners model directed evolution by making paper fly. Learners construct and fly paper airplanes. During the first round, they calculate the average distance the planes fly and then recreate the planes that flew the furthest. Learners repeat this process several times, observe how the average distance of flight changes, and eventually identify the ideal flyer. This activity can be used to introduce learners to genetic random mutations and how scientists are using directed evolution to engineer new proteins with enhanced properties.

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
Under 5 minutes

Learning Time:
45 to 60 minutes

Estimated Materials Cost:
$1 - $5 per group of students

Age Range:
Ages 8 - 18

Resource Types:
Activity, Lesson/Lesson Plan, Model


Materials List (per group of students)

  • Paper
  • Meter stick or measuring tape
  • Plastic straws (optional)
  • Index cards (optional)
  • Tape (optional)
  • Scissors (optional)
  • Paper clips or other small attachments (optional)


  • Engineering and Technology
    • Engineering
      • Aerospace Engineering
      • Bioengineering/Biomedical Engineering
  • Life Sciences
    • Evolution
      • Mechanisms of Evolution
    • Heredity and Genetics
      • Patterns of Heredity
      • Genetic Engineering
  • Mathematics
    • Data Analysis and Probability
      • Data Analysis
      • Data Collection
    • Measurement
      • Units of Measurement
      • Rate
    • Number and Operations
  • The Nature of Technology
    • The Design Process
      • Invention and Innovation
  • Physical Sciences
    • Motion and Forces
      • Projectile Motion
  • The Nature of Science
    • The Scientific Process
      • Conducting Investigations
      • Gathering Data
      • Formulating Explanations

Informal Categories

  • Toys
  • Transportation


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • read
  • be mobile
  • touch

Learning styles supported:

  • Involves teamwork and communication skills
  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access


  • Yu, Julie


  • All rights reserved, Exploratorium, 2009

Funding Sources:

  • National Science Foundation, 0610238
  • National Science Foundation, 0925383