Editor’s note: In May 2022, a trio from South Korea and Malaysia set a new world record for farthest flight of a paper airplane.
Sometimes a memorable lesson floats right into the classroom. Case in point: John Collins’ world-record paper airplane.
On Wednesday, Collins brought his high-achieving design — along with enthusiasm and a couple of boxes of planes — to the Graduate School of Design (GSD).
Collins, whose plane set the 226-foot record for distance in 2012, offered a workshop that used paper airplanes as a teaching tool. He talked to a group of students about making the planes, including design, goals, and materials. As he outlined the process, he encouraged students to engage in behavior that would have gotten their high school selves sent to the principal’s office: making and flying paper airplanes in class.
“When thinking about design solutions, it has to work,” Collins said. “If you can wad up a piece of paper and throw it farther than your paper airplane, your plane sucks.”
Collins’ talk touched on glide ratios, center of gravity, and center of lift, the boundary layer, and the Magnus effect. He drew on his experience with origami to introduce students to the complicated folds of their first plane, which had a thick hexagonal front. He talked about how an additional fold here or there can shift the center of gravity and make a plane fly better, or how a tweak of a wing’s trailing edge can prevent a nosedive. Along the way, he offered an inside view of the process behind designing 75 original planes.
The workshop and previous night’s lecture at Gund Hall were part of the new Master in Design Engineering (MDE) program offered jointly by the GSD and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).
“My goal was to bring an outside-the-box thinker with a nontraditional path to speak to our students,” said Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics Kevin Kit Parker, who arranged Collins’ visit. “Innovation comes in many different forms, not just through formal education. But before innovation one must live a creative life. John certainly lives a creative life.”