Elementary students learn physics and math through annual rocket launch

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“Pressure is at 30 psi!…40!…Ready...3,2,1…” As Braden Wehr, sixth-grade student at Front Range Christian, releases the pressure valve, the small paper rockets shoots into the air to the delight of both his experiment partner, fifth-grader Jessica Dunning, and a pack of curious elementary students gathered around the launch pad. On February 10, 2012, fifth and sixth grade students from Mrs. Eitzen’s Explore class (a program for gifted and talented students) bundled up and gathered in the parking lot of Front Range Christian for their second annual rocket launch. The result of weeks of design, testing, and calculations, students launched their air-propelled rockets and observed first-hand the practical application of science to aircraft design.

The day’s festivities began several weeks prior as students took a field trip to Lockheed Martin to learn about real rockets firsthand. Volunteer parent, Dave Giere, retired Director of Engineering at Lockheed Martin, brought the group of 20 students to his old stomping grounds for a first-hand tour of the Waterton facilities. Mariah Hart, fifth-grader, commented “Two weeks ago we got to tour Lockheed Martin with our class. We saw a film, and an interview with a scientist there. We also got to see Orion, an all-purpose space vehicle that will launch into space unmanned in 2012, and manned in 2017.” Orion is Lockheed Martin’s latest space exploration craft designed to eventually take humans to the far side of the moon, an asteroid, and ultimately Mars.

Students spent over two months preparing for the launch. Each student built paper rockets with a nose cone, fins for stability, and with a symmetrical design to stabilize flight. They also tested their rockets in a homemade wind tunnel which predicted the altitude of each rocket’s flight based on drag. Finally, they constructed a pressurized chamber out of PVC pipe, glue and a release valve which they used the day of the launch.

On the day of the launch, pairs of students took turns shooting their rockets into the clear blue sky. As the launches took place, students measured the height of each rocket’s reach, using their “Altitude Checkers.” Mrs. Eitzen, the Explore teacher at Front Range Christian, explained, “Students can measure the altitude of each rocket with these simple devices. Since we know our distance from the launch pad and the angle of ascent, we use the Law of Sines to calculate the maximum height of each rocket.”

The hands-on approach to learning about physics, math, and engineering was not without effect. Michael Klima, fifth-grade student at Front Range Christian, commented, “I learned that a rocket needs fins and a nose cone to fly steady. My rocket did well; it went 35 feet. But I think Isaac’s did the best. It went well over 50 feet.”

The importance of STEM education is apparently not lost on this faith-based school. Eitzen said, "After months spent learning about the physics and engineering of rockets, the launch gave our students the chance to put what they'd learned to the test. This kind of hands-on experience is not only a lot of fun for the students, but helps cement what they've learned." Perhaps one of these young rocket scientists will one day man the Orion space explorer themselves and say along with John Gillespie Magee, “I have slipped the surly bonds of earth…and touched the face of God.”

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