Engineering Design: Forces and Motion -- Balloon Aerodynamics Challenge
Front cover of the educator guide

Featured Lesson(s)

NASA eClips Educator Guide NASA’s Real World Balloon Aerodynamics Challenge 1 and 2 [PDF 2.58 MB]
Student Design Packet [PDF 416 KB]


Essential Question

How can a student change the density of a helium balloon system to make it float at a specific height?


This challenge gives students firsthand experience with density -- in this case, the densities of air and helium. Students think and act like teams of scientists and engineers as they follow the eight steps of the engineering design process to create a helium balloon system that will float at a predetermined height in the classroom. Then they demonstrate how drag, lift, weight and thrust affect motion. Advanced classes or students can attach sensors to the balloons and gather environmental data.


Large unmanned helium balloons provide NASA with an inexpensive way to transport payloads into a near-space environment. Many important discoveries in fields such as X-ray/gamma-ray and infrared astronomy, cosmic rays, and atmospheric studies have been made from data collected by balloon-borne instruments.

Additional Resources

  Classroom Resources:

  • Videos for Students:
    • Music Video: This fast-paced music video shows students engaged in the Balloon Aerodynamics Challenge activity. The video is intended to be a motivational resource. It introduces students to the activity and raises their interest.
    • Neutral Buoyancy: This video segment helps students understand the concept of neutral buoyancy and to provide a NASA-related context for the lesson.
    • Drag: This NASA-related resource helps students understand the concept of drag and how it affects the orbit of the International Space Station.

  Related NASA Now Events:

  Connection to NASA:

  Extension Activities:

  • Attach a data sensor to the balloon and change the design to make the balloon float. Take atmospheric measurements at different attitudes. See page 9, EXTEND – Instrumentation Balloon Challenge 2: Data Collection, in the guide.
  • Balloonsat Student Competition

Professional Development

Live ePD

Click here to find the live web seminars scheduled for this featured lesson. Web seminars are led remotely by NASA subject matter experts and education specialists.

Access to video gallery

Click here to access the teacher video collection for this featured lesson.

  Related Professional Development:

Lesson Information

Subject(s) Covered:

 • Engineering • Science • Technology

Topic(s) Covered:

 • Engineering Design Process • Properties and changes of property in matter • Force and motion • Abilities of technological design • Understanding about science and technology

Activity Type:

 Design challenge

Grade Level:


Instructional Objective:

 Students will: • Use the eight steps of the engineering design process to complete a team challenge; • Demonstrate the concepts of lift, drag and thrust as examples of force and motion; • Demonstrate the concepts of buoyancy and density.

Time to Complete the Activity:

 Two to three 45-minute class periods

  Materials Needed:

  • Per student team (of four students)
    • 1 Mylar helium-filled balloon
    • 1 watch, clock or stopwatch
    • Paperclips, grains of uncooked rice, seeds, beads or other objects of similar mass
    • 1 paper cup for carrying ballast
    • Temperature or other sensors
    •  3 yards of ribbon or thin string


   National Content Standards:


  • 21st Century SkillsLearning and Innovation Skills
    • Creativity and innovation: Work creatively with others.
    • Communication and Collaboration: Collaborate with others.



  • Science Standards
    • Physical Science.
      • Motions and forces
      • Properties and changes of properties in matter
    • Science as inquiry: Understanding about scientific inquiry.



  • Technology Standards
    • Design: Students will develop an understanding of engineering design.
    • Abilities for a technological world: Students will develop the abilities to apply the design process.