model rockets

Dynamic End of School Year Activities

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While many schools are winding down the school year with “fun” activities, videos, and other educationally light fare, the students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are working on challenging and engaging activities right up to the end. The 7th graders, having just completed a lab comparing two types of model rockets, are starting an engineering project where each crew is designing their own original model rocket, then building and launching it as a test of the design. Students are ensuring the rocket is stable and are analyzing what forces will act on it. Here are some of the students launching their rockets during the lab while following all safety procedures laid out by the National Association of Rocketry:


The 8th graders are completing a coding and engineering project where they built and coded small drones, then flew them. These are Codrones made my Robolink, and the students had to learn everything to do this project through online tutorials. The Codrone uses an Arduino platform, and Robolink provides modified C++ code that the students can use, then tailor to make the drone do what they want. Essentially, this is a robotics activity. This was a challenging project, involving coding and flying. Here are some photos of the students working with Codrones:


Another task by one crew is to follow up on our Sundial Project and demonstrate the winning design to the Superintendent so that he can approve it to be built outside our school. To prepare this demonstration, the students made a full-size prototype with floor tiles, then laid them out and tested the sundial’s accuracy – it was spot on, as the last photo shows where Sydney is the gnomon and Richard is pointing to the current time, 3:45PM, which is right where Sydney’s shadow falls:


Finally, the 8th graders just finished the earth science unit on astronomy, so we are looking at life skills using Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen Covey. The students are studying what Covey said, then planning how to apply them in their lives now and in the near future in high school.  We are wrapping up an outstanding year, and giving the students these challenging activities makes for a good closure.

Learning Forces and Motion through Gliders and Rockets

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At the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, students have been learning about force and motion over the past week. However, rather than just do traditional lessons and labs, students also have done inquiry activities and applications of what they learned about force by using model gliders and rockets.

The seventh graders have used gliders to begin learning about the forces of flight. They learned the terminology and related the terms to what they have been seeing on the flight simulator. Then they built and flew balsa gliders and paper gliders in inquiry lab activities to further see how these forces interact. The following photos show their learning in action.


The eighth graders concluded their rocket project where each student group, or crew, had designed, built, and tested an original design with the goal of accelerating as fast as possible. The common constraint was that all model rockets used an Estes A8-3 engine, providing an average of 8 Newtons of thrust for about 2 seconds. The best design belonged to Crew 5 whose rocket accelerated at 94 feet per second per second up to over 640 feet in altitude. All six of the crews’ rockets flew straight, stable flight paths and accelerated well. The students learned to calculate the acceleration using distance and time as the basis. The following photos show each crew with their rocket.

Crew 5 with World’s Fastest Rocket!


Learning Using Various Models

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The students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are focusing on the use of models this week, though we use models throughout the school year in various ways. A model can be physical, conceptual, or mathematical, and we use all three types. The use of systems and system models is also one of the cross-cutting concepts promoted in the Next Generation Science Standards, the latest guidance on how to teach science effectively.

For the 7th graders, Ms. Garavel introduced the idea of models, then gave the students an assignment to assemble a model aircraft or spacecraft, do a report on it, and present it to the class. The students will also soon be flying model gliders, then designing their own model gliders. These students are learning that models can be a simple way to learn about a complex machine, such as an airplane. They are also learning some basic techniques for building. While the assignment and tasks are fairly simple, they serve as a good model for later on when the students learn to build in our makerspace using hand tools, power tools, and 3D printing. The following photos show the 7th graders assembling their models and preparing their reports.


I am teaching the 8th graders, and we are using model rockets to study motion, primarily the concepts of distance and displacement, speed and velocity, acceleration, and force. The students had to design their model rockets to accelerate as much as possible while all using the same model rocket engine. After some preliminary labs where we studied motion, we discussed how we could graph a model rocket’s motion when it is launched. A graph is a mathematical model. The students saw how a velocity vs. time graph could be used to find the altitude of the rocket by calculating the area under the velocity curve. We also used a wind tunnel to model how drag will affect the rocket inflight. The following photos show model rockets and the 8th graders building, testing, and launching them and measuring their altitude and time to reach altitude – and to show how much these students have progressed in the past year, note that a student is running the launch pad (and he did a superb job, maintaining a safe, efficient launch schedule), and all the students’ rockets launched and flew straight, stable flight paths, compared to a 50% success rate the first time they did such a project last year.


Finally, in the last two weeks the students have heard guest speakers who serve as role models. In celebration of the US Air Force’s birthday, we heard Captain Nicole Robillard, US Air Force, speak via Skype about her service as the supervisor of airfield operations at her base in England. I met her there when I was traveling in England this summer, and what struck me was this very professional officer was from Bristol, Connecticut. What was especially impressive was that she and her three sisters all attended the US Air Force Academy, an extremely selective college. We also heard another guest speaker this week, Donna Men, a senior at Western Connecticut State University majoring in accounting. Donna was inspirational as a role model, as she had moved to this country from Cambodia when she was ten years old, speaking no English. She went on to become a successful high school student (and my student for three years) who earned so much scholarship money, she got a refund from WestConn every year. She also has already gotten a job offer from Deloitte, a world class accounting firm. These role models and the other forms of modeling are helping the students at the academy become better learners and better citizens.

Learning the Engineering Design Process with Model Rockets

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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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Modeling STEM with Model Rockets

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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