Learning the Engineering Design Process with Model Rockets

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are in the final weeks of school, so we are doing our last engineering design challenge. Each challenge follows the NASA Engineering Design Process. Students first get a problem to solve, then they do research to see what has been done before and what might apply to their problem. They brainstorm ideas to develop a solution, then they finally pick the best design that meets the criteria of the problem. Finally, they build and test a prototype to develop a final solution. They document all these steps and their daily activities in an engineering notebook. Our current aerospace theme is about rockets, so the last design challenge is to improve a model rocket design. A couple weeks ago, the students got two different model rocket kits, an Estes and Viking, and they conducted a lab to test their respective performances. See my last post for details on this lab. The engineering design challenge I presented to them was to develop an improved version of either of these rockets – namely, they had to develop a model rocket that would fly as high as possible, and higher than the commercially available rockets.

To meet the challenge, student crews (groups of 4 or 5 students) first did research and brainstormed ideas. We also reviewed the basic physics of rocket flight and the forces involved. Students understood that for the rocket to fly higher, it needed to have the least amount of weight and drag. Each student crew then worked on their initial designs. When they presented these designs to me, before anything was built, I was not impressed. The designs had minimally changed the commercial rockets, making very small changes to the original designs. I told the students to go back to the drawing board and be more bold and innovative. They took this challenge and developed much better designs that changed almost every aspect of the commercial rockets. The redesigned new fins using new materials, they used computer aided design (CAD) to 3D print new nose cones, they redesigned the recovery systems, and they changed the body tubes. We are finishing these new rockets by early next week and plan to launch and test them on Thursday, May 26th, weather permitting.

Here are photos of the students developing their rocket designs and constructing various components:

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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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