The Perils of Paper Airplanes

Posted on Tue, June 14, 2011
  • by: Lauren Rice is an Explainer at the National Air and Space Museum and a student at American University.

Visitors to the Museum’s How Things Fly gallery can try out more than 50 hands-on activities and participate in science demonstrations.  The gallery has more than 35 part-time high school and college age Explainers who help visitors interpret the exhibits and the science of flight.  When I trained to be an Explainer, I learned the basics: daily activities, expectations, etc. What I didn’t learn, however, was all the job hazards. Interacting with visitors and doing demonstrations sound pretty safe, right?

Paper Airplane Contest

A boy participates in a paper airplane contest in the Museum's "How Things Fly" gallery.


Not quite. Behind the multicolored propellers and paper airplane contests lurk hidden dangers. A month after I started learning the Paper Airplane Contest, I presented the program for the first time. Visitors make their own airplanes and compete by flying their planes through a hoop from different distances. I thought I had contemplated everything that could go wrong. With hundreds of visitors participating in the contests each day, I assumed the odds of being hit by paper airplanes were high. I began the contest a little nervous, but everything went smoothly and that fateful impact never came. I congratulated the winner and packed up… relieved.  A couple of hours later as I headed to lunch, I squirted hand sanitizer into my palms and felt my hands stinging.  When I looked down there was an irritating paper cut. That was the beginning. Over the next few weeks, I went home every day with my hands covered in paper cuts not realizing their source. Finally, it hit me. I was demonstrating how to make the folds of a paper airplane really crisp. With a flourish, I’d quickly run my nails along the line and would sometimes feel a sting on my wrist. Looking down, I would realize I was bleeding. Week after week, absorbed in excitement, I had slowly been covering my hands in paper cuts.

\"How Things Fly\" Explainer

Lauren Rice, an Explainer in the "How Things Fly" gallery, demonstrates how to make a paper airplane.


If you’ve never seen one of the demonstrations at the National Air and Space Museum you haven’t witnessed how easy it is to get caught up in the fun.  Even though we may do the same contest several times a day, each experience is different. I once had a family who attended every contest I held for three days in a row and by the end of the week, the son knew the program as well as I did. Another first-time paper airplane maker was so excited by his experience that his parents jokingly called me their son’s “First Flight Instructor.” We want our visitors to have fun and enjoy their time at the Museum and hopefully learn a little science. Our ultimate goal is to encourage the learning experience beyond the visit.  Sometimes this goal can be difficult and full of hidden dangers, but I don’t mind.  I really enjoy my job!  I have, however, trained myself to hold the paper just a little farther from my wrists and pay closer attention when I fold my lines. I rarely get paper cuts anymore.  If only I had the same luck with the paper airplane collisions. Remember, aim for the hoop, not the Explainer!

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