Combining Inquiry and Engineering Design in STEM Lessons

Lab activity with air launched paper rockets

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are learning about rockets. Our current science unit is on earth science, focusing on the internal and external structural changes of the Earth. We just finished plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes, and we are starting to look at the rock cycle, weathering, and erosion. To connect these topics to an aerospace theme, I have shown how scientists use remote sensing to detect, measure, and analyze these changes on the Earth, and on other planets and moons. Aerospace remote sensing uses aircraft and satellites, but we also looked at maritime remote sensing using ships and submarines. Now we are looking at how satellites and other spacecraft get to space, primarily using rockets. I timed this unit to coincide with spring so that we can build and launch rockets outside. It also coincides with our algebra unit on quadratic functions that describe how rockets change position over time.

Teaching about rockets involves two parallel strands–teaching how actual rockets launched by NASA and other space agencies work, and model rocketry where students see how a rocket operates firsthand. The first step in model rocketry is to learn some basics about rocket flight and safety. Therefore, we just did an inquiry lab where students built simple paper rockets launched by air pressure. It was an inquiry activity, as I did not give the students any guidance except to determine a dependent variable they could measure to determine the rocket’s performance based on an independent variable they could change. The lab also involved engineering design practices, as the students had to decide what modifications they made to their rocket to test its performance, then build those modifications and test them during multiple launches. The lab was a lot of fun, and a perfect way to get outside on a nice spring Friday. The following photos show the students designing and building their rockets:



The rockets were launched using a L-shaped 1/2-inch PVC pipe that was duct taped to an empty 2-liter soda bottle. The paper rocket slipped over the end of the pipe, and stepping on the bottle provided a burst of air pressure for launch. The record distance was over 130 feet–not bad for a piece of paper! Here are the students launching and testing their rocket  performance:IMG_2474


Intern Kate Morehead volunteers to measure distances of rocket launches
Note the rocket flying through the air at the top of the photo – they flew high and far!


Author: Bryan Holmes, Physics & Math Teacher, STEM Competition Mentor

Starting at Thomaston High School in Thomaston, Connecticut, in fall of 2018.

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