I was a STEM Kid – When I Tried to Make Leonardo’s Flying Machine

I was a STEM Kid – When I Tried to Make Leonardo’s Flying Machine


Please note:

I am noT Leonardo Da Vinci


I went to high school in the 80s

(Think: The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink)

What happens when we mix the two?

This could be the script for an after school special. The story is so cringe-worthy that I almost can’t even write it. But it is worth it, because I want to show how far we have come.

I had a wonderful art teacher. Let’s call her Mrs. Baker. Her room smelled of acrylics and plaster. Mat boards leaned against the wall. Paint-spattered chairs sat pulled out, awaiting a new set of students. Entering her room allowed me a sigh of relief. Art time!

We were encouraged to create and to take chances. We mastered our skills. We brainstormed.

I longed for that feeling in other classes. Creative writing came close. Physics seemed like it may invite some inventive thinking.

But in those days science was science.

Art was art.

And never the twain would meet.

I had seen Leonardo’s notebooks in a handout. I was fascinated by his backwards handwriting. His sketches drew me in. But I remembered specifically the Flying Machine. Bird wings built from wood stretched in their glory. I was in. I got to work in my kitchen. (Sorry, Mom.) I purchased several dowels at our small-town, narrow hardware store that mysteriously carried everything you might need. You know the store that your father still calls by the name from the 50s? Even though it is Ace or something else at this point? That store. Then came thin army-duck painter’s canvas which I tie dyed (did I mention I was a hippie?) light purple with stripes.

I would work at home, then bring the partially-created work to school to continue in art class. schoobus One day as I was walking up the aisle on the bus, I accidentally jammed a dowel into the hanging fan near the driver. The fan churned off the ends of the dowel and flung wood chips about the bus. Of course – as fate would have it – my bully was sitting right there. Let’s call him Randy Farrone. Nice guy. He launched into action, relishing every moment of my humiliation as I froze. I scooped up the pieces and fled the bus even though I was several blocks from home. He never let me forget it.

But I did not let it stop me. I did, however, avoid the fan on the bus.

The final structure was pieced together with super glue and rubber band reinforcements. Careful, though. Touching any joint could cause a springing-open action, and I would have to patch it together. More rubber bands. Even duct tape here and there. I stretched the canvas over the wide shape which hid the questionable construction.

It really looked interesting–as long as you did not get too close.

As I was one of those students that the school doesn’t really know what to do with, I was given a few study halls during the day. It was during one of said study halls that I planned the launch. You might think I would try the machine in the parking lots behind the schools. Or even a vacant field somewhere.


I went right outside, smack in the center of the soccer fields, directly in front of the expansive windows of my large, suburban high school. Right in the middle of the school day. The wind whipped upwards, so I was actually caught aloft for a brief second. I mean, this thing was big. It was really exciting. Kids started to look at me from the windows: my moment of glory in fringed Minnetonka mocs.

You know that screeching-to-a-stop record sound when someone scrapes the needle over the vinyl? Yeah. Cue that.

The front of the machine was not properly balanced out, so it nose dived and smashed into the dirt leaving a nice divot in the soccer field. I tripped and fell under the structure as it folded upon me. Students faces were practically pressed against the windows as they witnessed my demise. I was the entertainment of the day.

In utter silence I entered the school through the back door so I would not have to rustle up a hall pass. It was during class-time, so there was nobody in the halls. Kids leaned back in chairs to smirk as I passed their Economics or Detective Fiction classes. But they were also intrigued. I could see a light in their eyes. Failure and all, it was fun and adventurous.

I padded soundlessly into the art room and placed the flying machine in the ‘way back of the supply closet. I never spoke of it again. As far as I know there are probably still pieces of it there.

But today things would be different. The students would be invited to share what worked and what didn’t. They would be encouraged to fix or rebuild.

Projects such as these (well, maybe not exactly THIS project) are now being tackled by groups of students. Inventive thinking has been brought into the classroom and is being shared with pride.

Check out below the great initiatives that I have seen just in one morning on Twitter.

And this is not even close to all of the tweets about STEM and STEAM. And at the very bottom? Download my free Leonardo poster. It’s all I can do to honor him after the sorry Flying Machine event. I mean, purple tie-dye and duct tape?

Not really his thing, I am guessing.

© Leonardo Design for a Flying Machine, c. 1488.jpg

© William J. Grimes – School Bus

Free Leonardo Poster:


Confessions of an Early STEM Kid – When I Tried to Make Leonardo’s Flying Machine

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