It *is* Rocket Science!

It is Rocket Science!

Many of the students at The Project School have recently been building and designing their own air-powered rockets.  As a part of their Wednesday enrichment choices, students are able to take part in science/physics activities as laid out by the NASA Ignite program. 

In addition to our air rockets, we have done marble run activities, lunar lander simulations, balloon powered racers, and balloon rockets designed to emulate lifting payloads into space. Our sessions begin with brief open-ended questions designed to start the inquiry process, like:  Have you ever thought about the difficulties of landing a rover on Mars?  What keeps a rocket from spinning out of control?  What forces do you think are involved?  There is always some brief discussion facilitated by the leader who refrains from answering any specific questions or validating anyone’s conclusions.  At this point in the activity, there are no right or wrong answers— only possible solutions and ideas.

After questions we move on to the building and hands-on activity which allow the students to explore their former ideas, change their designs, learn from other teams, meet the challenges of the activity, and, in many cases, deal with the consequences and realities of failure.

This is the time when students really become truly engaged.  They are no longer just thinking about science and inquiry.  They are doing science and inquiry.  They build and design their landers or rockets, and then they try out their creations.  They fail, they modify, they problem solve, they fail again.  Some rockets shoot a hundred feet up while some tank at twenty feet and flutter to the ground like wounded birds.  This is all part of the process, and after these events we go back to the drawing board.  We talk and share ideas.  What worked?  What did not?  Why did Jim’s rocket spin out of control?  Why did John’s go so high?  What was so different about the rockets we saw?

The wrap up is always aimed at the original questions.  Students may not have names for the forces involved.  They may not know the definitions of inertia or centrifugal force.  Even after the teacher explains, they may not remember the terms, but one thing is certain:  After watching a marble go through a loop, after designing the loop and failing many times, they have come intimately to understand the concepts of inertia and centrifugal force.  After watching multiple rockets launch into the air, they are keenly aware of lift, drag, gravity, and thrust.  Add a dash of mystery about the universe and the great unknown, of stars and black holes, of pulsars and nebulae, and you have the ingredients for a mighty inquisitive and excited group of learners.

You can see some of the delight in students’ voices in this short clip of one of our launches:

What’s next?  I’m glad you asked.  Next we will explore the likelihood of life on other planets.  We will explore what that life might look like.  We will talk about extremophiles, and even the amazing tardigrade.  Don’t know what a tardigrade is?  Well, it’s also known as a “water bear”.  I’ll leave the rest of the inquiry to you.  Keep star gazing!


Mark van Dyk


4 Responses to “It *is* Rocket Science!”

  1. 1 Scott Wallace January 20, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks for doing this great work with our little ones, Mark!

  2. 2 Emily Nehus January 20, 2013 at 10:23 pm


  3. 4 Mark January 31, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks for the reblog STEM TECH

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