Modeling STEM with Model Rockets

After a washout last week with rain everyday, this week at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering we finally started launching model rockets. Many schools use model rockets in one way or another, often as a “fun” lesson at the end of the year. Rockets are always fun, but they can also be the basis of a rigorous science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) unit. I used model rockets to model many different real-life STEM activities and careers with my students:

  • The students studied how real rockets work and compared rocket engines to jet engines which we had studied earlier in the year.
  • They studied the National Association of Rocketry’s Model Rocket Safety Code and took a safety quiz that required a 100% pass rate. I explained how Air Force pilots must memorize safety procedures and cannot fly until they prove 100% proficient in safety and emergency procedures.
  • They had a choice of two model rocket kits to build and chose those that met the objectives of an experiment they devised. Each student crew (group of four) had two model rockets to build. Designing their own experiment is now standard procedure for my students.
  • They built their model rockets by following the kit’s directions and with minimal help from me. Some mistakes were made, and the students had to figure out how to fix them. We discussed how this related to actual engineering projects where building anything never goes exactly according to plan.
  • They learned about rocket forces and stability, relating these to what we learned earlier in the year about airplanes. Then they measured their rocket’s center of gravity and center of pressure to make sure it was stable.
  • They built and practiced using an altitude measuring device that measured the angle of a model rocket’s apogee (highest point), and they learned how to use trigonometry to calculate the altitude using this angle. They practiced this skill, modeling good measuring techniques.
  • They learned how to set up a rocket range with a launch area (run by a launch control officer), a preparation area (to prepare rockets for launch), an observation area (where students used the altitude measuring devices and timers to measure each launch), and a recovery team (to get the rockets after they landed). We went over this in detail before the first launch. We also practiced using walkie-talkies between the launch control officer (call sign, LCO) and the altitude measuring team in the observation area (call sign, Altitude).
  • We put it all together and launched a total of 25 rockets in two periods yesterday and today – and with no significant problems. The students are analyzing the data from their launches to determine the performance of their rockets. The next step will be for each crew to pick an aspect of the model rocket to redesign and improve, then we will launch their improved rockets in the next couple weeks.

Here are some photos of a launch, plus each crew with their rockets (two rockets were unavailable for photos due to drifting off range)…

Preparing rocket for launch
Blast Off! Note observers in distance – they measured altitude and time aloft


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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