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Our Favorite Posts: From Flight to Discovery

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Summer is a perfect time to reflect on the school year gone by. This week, Danna Bell-Russel of the Library of Congress showcases one of her favorite posts from 2012-2013.

As my colleagues know one of my favorite things is to show how primary sources can be used to help teach science or math. I love “From Flight to Discovery with Alexander Graham Bell’s Papers” because it provides an idea that helps teachers incorporate primary sources into a math lesson that will excite and engage students. The instructional activities presented can be used with elementary, middle and high school students to integrate science, reading, and critical thinking skills.

Tell us how you will use primary sources to enhance your math or science lessons.

From Flight to Discovery with Alexander Graham Bell’s Papers

April 2, 2013 by

This guest post is from the Library of Congress Teacher in Residence, Earnestine Sweeting.

It didn’t occur to me until recently that my math lesson was missing a primary source.  After a simple search for “tetrahedron” or “tetrahedral kites” on the Library of Congress Web site, I was fascinated to find primary sources that could have enriched my geometry and measurement lessons.

To strengthen my fifth grade students’ skills in geometric fundamentals, I would schedule a few math periods for them to build a tetrahedron, which is a three-dimensional triangular figure. What I like most about this project is that it provides a challenge for students who crave multi-step problems to solve while it offers hands-on appeal for all. Tetrahedra are combined to design a tetrahedral kite. After some construction work with drinking straws, string, and tissue paper–plus a little will-this-fly skepticism–my students went out on a breezy day to see their tetrahedral kites take flight.

I was amazed to discover the use of tetrahedral units in the construction of kites found in Alexander Graham Bell’s Family Papers were the same principles I used with my students. Little did I know that Bell used the tetrahedral principle by combining triangular units to build very large kite structures. After reflecting on my students’ skepticism, I wonder if their reaction would have been different had I shared Bell’s theory of very large kite structures made out of light materials.

Image from Journal by Alexander Graham Bell, from January 2, 1903 to August 26, 1904

In Bell’s papers, he insisted that the lack of interest in kites arose from the false idea that a kite could only be a plaything or toy. I encouraged my students to refer to the structure only as a tetrahedron, rather than a kite. My rationale was not only to build their vocabulary, but also to emphasize the academic value in engaging in such a project.   This 1904 Washington Times article explains that Bell had long been interested in the flying machine problem, and became convinced that a successful kite will also make a successful flying machine.

  • After reading this 1903 St. Louis Republic article, students can consider the process Bell used to find solutions to the problems he faced. Encourage students to compare and contrast how Bell’s problems were similar to those they’ve encountered in their own real-world endeavors–or those of others they might know.  How did Bell’s experiences contribute to the overall success of his flying machine?
  • Ask students to think of a classmate or a friend who would benefit from reading Bell’s papers and explain the reasons for making the recommendation.  What can we learn from Bell’s argument to think differently about something once considered to have no practical use?

For additional resources, go to With Wings as Eagles: From Flight to Fantasy.

Share the discoveries you’ve made when using primary sources to add depth or historic achievements to your math or science lessons.


  1. Excellent post and a very well-thought application for the sciences and mathematics. Another great application for this lesson in a science course is by using the scientific method, although other scholars prefer not to follow the step-by-step objective approach that we all learned in previous years. Given the nature of experimentation that Bell used with his tetrahedral design, we can design a lesson plan around the alternative to the scientific method and compare and contrast how this vs. a direct scientific method approach can have positives or negatives and learning and impact science as a whole with applicable discussions. The Nature of Science revolves around this type of learning, and many people with the new Common Core standards are approaching science on that route.

    Other than the obvious, this can also have connections to angle measurement, understanding of angles and polygons as well as congruent figures. I really think that this lesson plan can be integrated in a cross-curricular manner…

    I’m glad to see that there was a very implicit science integration. Miss you all and best of luck to Earnestine who is a great asset to Ed Outreach!

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