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Alexander Graham Bell and the Iterative Kite Design Process

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This post is by Kellie Taylor, Ed.D., the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow.

Alexander Graham Bell meticulously documented his experiments in aerial locomotion for human flight. His notebooks capture the effort he put into designing and testing aerial possibilities. He was able to identify what worked – and what did not – through the engineering design process. Bell’s notebooks create a great learning opportunity for students to explore the work of an early innovator, try to replicate his results, and then test their own design innovations.

Image 58 of Journal by Alexander Graham Bell, from September 2, 1901 to October 29, 1901

Ask students to observe page 58 from Bell’s journal without disclosing the author. What do they notice first? What else do they see? What invention do they think this page documents? If needed, direct students’ attention to the drawings and compare them to the text for clues about the invention. What questions do students have about the document? Who might have written this journal? Students might guess the Wright brothers or some other well-known aviation figures based on what they see. Invite them to support their hypotheses with evidence from the page or prior knowledge, but don’t tell them just yet.

Image 130 of Journal by Alexander Graham Bell, from September 2, 1901 to October 29, 1901

Image 173 of Journal by Alexander Graham Bell, from September 2, 1901 to October 29, 1901

After sharing their observations, thoughts, and questions about the first journal page, ask students to observe two additional pages from Bell’s journal. What do they notice? What similarities do they see between all three pages? In the designs that are represented? What changes do they see from the earliest page to the latest?

Share with students that these are pages from one of Alexander Graham Bell’s journal. Ask students to identify how Bell’s kite design was evolving from September to early October based on the journal pages. Students can sketch their own versions of the kites to assist in identifying the differences between the two. Ask them to consider what different designs might have come between the journal entries. Challenge students to identify how these three pages relate to the engineering design process of identifying a problem, brainstorming, developing a solution, testing, improving, and sharing.

Ask students to design their own kites based on Bell’s sketches to test his experimental results using of a variety of materials. Encourage students to follow the engineering design process by first recording the problem, brainstorming ideas, sketching a possible solution, and then testing and improving. Highlight the practice of documenting this process with students creating their own notebook or journal entries for their design. How do student innovations compare to Bell’s? Student kite designs can also be created in a computer aided design program (CAD) to allow students to create digital 3D renderings or prints of their creations.

For further exploration, see the blog post “Researching Aerial Locomotion – Kites and Alexander Graham Bell” and additional Bell journals and documentation in the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers Collection.

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