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        Lighter Than Air: Building a Hot Air Balloon | Stem in 30

        In this activity, students work in teams to construct a hot air balloon out of tissue paper to demonstrate how a hot air balloon flies. They will develop a conceptual model to explain why the balloon rises when heated.

        Lesson Summary

        Lesson Title:  Lighter Than Air: Building a Hot Air Balloon
        Grade Level(s):  3-­8
        Timeline:  3-­4 Days

        Lesson Overview: In this activity, students work in teams to construct a hot air balloon out of tissue paper to demonstrate how a hot air balloon flies. They will develop a conceptual model to explain why the balloon rises when heated.

        Learning Objectives

        • Students will build a working model of a hot air balloon.
        • Students will understand the concept that hot air is lighter than cool air, because it has less mass per unit of volume.
        • Students will be able to model lighter than air flight.
        • Students will be able to describe the difference between hot air balloons and gas balloons.

        NGSS Standards:

        MS­ETS1­4. Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.

        MS­PS1­4. Develop a model that predicts and describes changes in particle motion, temperature, and state of a pure substance when thermal energy is added or removed.

        Crosscutting Concepts: Cause and Effect, Energy and Matter, Structure and Function

        Science and Engineering Practices: Developing and Using Models, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions


        • Tissue Paper (20” X 30”) ­ 21 sheets per balloon
        • Glue Sticks
        • Stapler
        • Cardstock (1 1/2 inch strips ­ enough to make a 10” diameter ring)
        • String
        • Stapler
        • Hot Air Gun


        Density:​ The measure of how much matter is in a certain volume.
        Fluid:​ A​substance that has no fixed shape and yields easily to external pressure; a gas or a liquid.
        Pressure:​ T​he continuous physical force exerted on or against an object by something in contact with it.
        Gravity: ​T​he force that attracts a body toward the center of the earth.
        Gore:​ A sector of a curved surface.

        Learning Activities

        Day 1­-2: Build

        • Create the template. This can be done in advance to save time.
          • Print out the template PDF and tape together, cut along the curved line.
          • The template is for half of the gore (each individual piece is called a gore). You will need to fold a piece of butcher paper in half, trace the gore, cut, and unfold it. Do not cut along the fold.
          • Transfer the template to cardboard or foam board. (Optional: This is helpful if building multiple balloons.)
        • Build the tissue paper panels.
          • Overlap sheets of tissue paper by 1 inch and glue together using a glue stick.
          • You will need 3 sheets of tissue paper per panel.
          • You will need 7 total panels.
        • Stack the 7 panels on top of each other.
        • Lay the template on top of the panel stack and cut all 7 layers at once.
        • Select 2 gores and lay them on top of each other.
        • Leave a 1/2 inch margin to the right so gore #2 shows. (Diagram 1)
        • Apply a line of glue along the 1/2 inch margin of the bottom gore. (Diagram 2)
        • Fold the bottom gore onto the top gore. (Diagram 3)
        • Place gore 3 on top of gores 1 and 2 leaving a 1/2 inch margin on the left.
        • Apply a solid line of glue along the 1/2 inch margin of gore 2.
        • Fold gore 2 onto gore 3.
        • Repeat this process for the remaining 4 gores.
        • Join the free edges of gore 1 and gore 7. This will create a circle when opened.
        • Hint: ​As you glue be sure to occasionally make sure the folds are not sticking together.
        • Tie the top of the balloon together using string or ribbon, 1/2 ­ 1 inch from the top.
        • Using cardstock and staples create a 10 inch ring.
        • Place the ring inside the mouth of the balloon, loop the tissue paper around the cardstock ring, and staple.
        • Hint:​You may have to fold the tissue paper together to make it fit snugly around the ring.
        • Let the balloon dry completely before launching.
        • Patch any holes or rips in the balloon by gluing left over tissue paper over the opening.
        • If launching in a place with limited space, you can attach a tether by stapling string to the inside of the ring and securing the other end to the floor.

        Day 3: Launch

        • With 2 or 3 people, gently pick up balloon and begin to pull folds out to shape the balloon.
        • Hold the bottom of the balloon over a heat gun.
        • Turn on the heat gun and allow the balloon to fill up and take shape.
          • Start with cool air if available.
          • Discussion Question: Why isn’t the balloon flying?
          • Turn on the hot air.
          • Discussion Question: Why does the balloon fly now?
        • WARNING: Heat guns get very hot, use caution when holding the balloon.
        • As the balloon begins to pull upward, release and enjoy the flight.
        • WARNING: Do NOT launch in the vicinity of power lines!!!
        • Have students create diagrams showing what is happening to the air inside the balloon and why it is flying.


        Discussion Questions 

        • Why did the hot air balloon float?
        • What was happening to the air molecules inside the balloon?
        • How could we improve the design of our hot air balloon?
        • Using your knowledge of how a hot air balloon flies, can you make a guess about how helium balloons float?
        • What would be some advantages or disadvantages to flying in a hot air balloon?
        • Why might the hot air balloon be shaped long and narrow, rather than round like a birthday balloon?


        • Design a basket to carry weights and have students compete to see whose balloon lifts the most.
        • Compare the lifting capacity of your hot air balloon to helium balloons.



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