5…4…2…1…LAUNCH, LAUNCH, LAUNCH! Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for; an actual lesson plan for rocketry! Without a solid foundation of common vocabulary, data use, aerodynamics, and science any other lesson in rocketry will fail to launch (Sorry, I couldn’t resist), as such we need to begin at the beginning. Don’t worry, this isn’t rocket science. Wait, it IS rocket science (Last one, I promise)! Still, don’t worry even if you don’t have any experience teaching a rocketry lesson. After reading this post I am certain you’ll be able to guide your students to learn everything they need to know to get started. Also, rockets are fun!
This particular lesson is designed for middle school (Grades 6-8) with solid fuel model rockets in mind, but with a little creativity you could easily adapt it to Bottle Rockets, or perhaps even Stomp Rockets. I teach this lesson as part of any rocketry unit I do. Whether the kids have been given this info before or not, they get it again. The purpose for the repetition is that often, my students won’t see me for a year or more. In that instance their brains have been stuffed so full of other stuff that the likelihood of them remembering Newton’s Laws, The Parts of a Model Rocket, Safe Launch Procedures, How to Collect Launch Data, or How to Use an Electronic Spreadsheet are exceptionally low.
It is also worth noting that my style of writing a lesson plan isn’t what you may be used to. I write out the plan in a manner that is meaningful to me as a teacher. The first thing I typically need to know is what materials I need, followed by what to teach, followed by how to teach it, and finally the applicable standards. Here we go!
- A Rocket Launch System: This would include the launch platform, and the launcher itself. There are many, many options. I recommend a launch system that requires two buttons to be pressed before the rocket fires. That way the teacher can control one button, and the student rocketeer the other. That said, any rocket launch system will have a safety switch, so don’t break the bank.
- An educator bulk pack of model rocket kits (along with whatever additional materials the kit recommends): You are looking for enough kits for each student to have a rocket, and you want them to be on the heavier side (between .8 and 1 ounce is ideal). The reason for this is that most schools are launching on sports fields so, you want a relatively low altitude which will result in a smaller potential landing area. Alternatively, you can scratch build rockets by a wide variety of methods. I will eventually cover how to scratch build a rocket while only ordering a few pieces I haven;t figured out how to fabricate yet, but this isn’t that post.
- An educator bulk pack of Model Rocket Engines. You are looking for the A8-3 sized engine. Again, this is a low power engine which will limit your altitude.
- Altitude tracking system: I use the one here (starting on page 109), but I found plans for this one while looking for a link to the one I use, and may be moving to it in the near future. You could also buy this one. You will need three systems that are exactly the same.
- Three Stop Watches
- Three Clipboards
- Paper & Pencils
- Video Recording Device that can record in Slow Motion & Take high quality photos.
What to Teach:
- Parts of a Model Rocket (Technology): If you later do any design units you will want to revisit this topic. Rocket design with 3D printing will be covered in another post.
- How to build a Model Rocket (Technology)
- Newtons Laws of Motion (Science): You can get math heavy or math light with this topic depending on what your students can manage.
- Aerodynamics (Science)
- Model Rocket Safety Code (Technology)
- Using spreadsheet software (Technology)
- Collecting & Using Data (Math)
- Engineering Documentation (Engineering)
How to Teach:
- Parts of a Model Rocket: I have taught this bit before as a lecture, and as a research project. I have found that for my particular program lecture works best because I combine this unit with a study of how Nose Cone shape effects altitude. As such I have more pieces to discuss than are found on kit based rockets. Whether you have the kids research it first or not, make sure you have a discussion about it, that way you can be certain you’re all on the same page in terms of vocab.
- How to build a Model Rocket: Depending on the age level you work with, and the ability of your students you can either go through the instructions step by step, or have the kids try to read the instructions that come with the kits. I have done kits with 4th graders and gone through all the steps, 6th graders and let the kids figure it out, and 8th graders where I went through each step. You know your students best, and should make the determination about how much hand holding to give them.
- Newton’s Laws of Motion/Aerodynamics: I really love these topics as research tasks. My school happens to be a google school so we have access to google classroom. This is one of those instances where google classroom is fantastic. For this lesson, students do online research about Newton’s Laws, define them, and detail how they apply to model rocketry in the classroom. Students cite their sources by providing links to their research after the body of their post. Aerodynamics is taught similarly, and ask them to detail how aerodynamics will effect the altitude of a model rocket. I prefer to do it this way because my class time is better spent building rockets than lecturing. This method also shows me exactly what each student knows, as opposed to a lecture where I have no immediate feedback.
- Data Collection/Using Data/Spreadsheet Software: These topics we work through as a class. On Launch day I have the students collect altitude data using the altimeters, and flight time data with the stop watches. I also have them write down if the recovery device deployed or not as well as any other observations they want to make. You can make up a worksheet for this or just have the kids write it out. I have had them write it out thus far, but plan on using a worksheet moving forward. After the launch, we put the data into a spreadsheet, and find averages. We also attempt to determine why any variation occurred in our data by recalling observations. With google classroom I can give my students each a copy of a spreadsheet with the basic structure, but no data. This saves a lot of time.
- Engineering Documentation: As the students are building their rockets, I try to have them take build in progress pictures. Students are not the designers of this build, but I want to teach them about documentation because later units are design focused. For me, efficiency is critical, and as such I teach as many skills a possible in a unified manner. I also have them digitize any notes they take by photographing them. Again, I am prepping them for design units later on.
- Model Rocket Safety Code: This portion is always done by modeling. We discuss the safety code generally then go through launch procedures several times before we go out to the launch area. Safety is absolutely crucial to model rocketry. Part of that is developing good launch procedures and sticking too them. There is a ton of information on the National Association of Rocketry web site about what good launch procedures look like.
(Protip: Make certain you put together a kit, and launch a rocket yourself before doing it with the kids. Sometimes strange instructions are given,and you will want to be prepared. You will also find likely trouble spots during your own build where you will want to give extra instruction. Don’t be afraid of not knowing the answer, but make sure you are setting reasonable expectations with your students.)
NGSS Middle School:
Common Core Math Grade 7:
The below standards are just what I have come up with. You apply math standards in how you present, and analyze the data. The great thing about rocketry is that since it is so data heavy, you can use whatever math you want to in order to present that data.
Engineering & Technology:
There really isn’t a design task with this unit, but it is prep for some major design lessons. The best I would say for engineering is that you make an argument for teaching engineering mindset. We teach engineering mindset through the collection of data, and taking build in progress pictures. Again, as no national standards exist teachers need to see what they can fit in, and where to fit it in. The same with technology, this unit is all about transportation technology, and uses a lot of information technology as vehicles to teach the science & math.
Teaching Technology & Engineering in this manner is perfectly fine, these subjects should be integrated in everything we do in Science & Math. We need to make certain however, that we have other lessons where our students can actually make something. For those occasions where they can’t, a good thing to do is to find away to integrate the Engineering Habits of Mind into your lessons.
That about covers the first rocketry lesson. This could be the beginning of a unit, or a stand alone event. It could build to design tasks using 3D prionters, or fabricating rockets from found materials. In any case you always need to start somewhere, in terms of rocketry as a vehicle for SuperStar STEM integration this is a perfect place to start. Thanks for your time, and don’t forget to sign up for updates in the footer below.