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Sometimes, it Really is Rocket Science
By Lauren Goldberg

"All of rocketry is predicated on Newton's Laws of Motion," Tim Blauvelt pronounces. 

His seventh graders nod, flip through their notebooks, and wait expectantly. 

"Who can remind us of Newton's Laws?"

Hands shoot up. Twelve- and 13-year-old students begin explaining the essential ideas of physics: "An object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion," says one girl, gesturing to demonstrate inertia.

"Unless it's acted on by an outside force!" adds one of her classmates enthusiastically. 

"F = ma," offers someone else.

"What do those letters stand for?" asks Tim. 

The conversation continues as the teacher and students discuss force, gravity, lift, thrust, drag, weight, time, velocity and angles. "There is a vector for drag, and a vector for weight," Tim reminds the class. Then he adds, "When you get to real vector analysis in college, you'll be able to calculate your position functions more precisely. But for now, you're going to be using a ruler."

Those rulers—along with a vast supply of tubing, straws, tape, paper patterns, and other materials—are spread around the room. On each lab table, an impressive assembly of vertical rods stands ready to hold the rockets that the students are about to construct.

This is the final project in seventh grade science and the excitement has been building for days as the students observe and experiment with aerodynamics. Starting with small projectiles made of straws, and moving on to plastic bottle rockets, the class has been learning about the variables that affect propelled flight. For the final part of the unit, they are building paper rockets, conforming to careful specifications. These rockets are then launched in dramatic fashion on the school's upper field. 

As they cut, tape and measure, Tim reminds the students of what they've already discovered."What did you learn about the size of your straw rockets?" he asks. Several students describe their experiments with different lengths of straws. "So, there is an optimal length," Tim notes. He encourages the group to think about how the weight of their rockets is distributed and how the position of the weight can change the trajectory of the rocket. They discuss concepts such as center of gravity, the curve of a rocket's flight, and the possible distance the rocket might travel. 

It takes two or three class periods for everyone to finish construction. When they are complete, the rockets are sleek, sturdy tubes of smooth paper and masking tape. "My fins are exactly balanced," says one engineer with pride. "I hope mine survives the landing," says another. "Your nose cone is so perfect," someone says admiringly. 

Launch day dawns bright and sunny. The class parades across Highland Street, carrying rockets and chattering eagerly. On the field, one of Tim's inimitable constructions awaits: a sawhorse table topped with an elegant design of PVC piping, a bicycle pump, some rubber tubes and an adjustable launch arm. At the far end of the field, Tim has placed a large trash barrel. The challenge is for students to shoot their rockets into the barrel. It's a nearly impossible task, but last year, two students did in fact hit the target. If someone does manage to sink a rocket into the barrel, Tim promises to cancel the final exam. No one seems worried about the test, but everyone is excited to fire the rockets. 

Measurements and final adjustments happen on the launch pad. Each student determines the angle of the arm, positions his or her rocket on the tube and chooses a level of air pressure. The first rocket flies off the stand under 50 psi. Amidst cheers, it sails smoothly across the field and lands about 10 feet to the left of the barrel. Its owner dashes across the grass to retrieve it, grinning widely.

After watching the first flight, the next student steps up and turns the launcher a few inches to the right. She asks for a bit more pressure—55 psi. A dramatic countdown, then a push of the release button, and the rocket pops off the launcher and overshoots the barrel. The next, and the next, and the next rockets are positioned carefully, each owner considering the flight path of the previous launches.
 

Classmates discuss the direction of the wind, offer advice, and sprint across the field to measure distance from the target. A few students take diligent notes, recording the angles and pressures of the flights.  Most people launch their rockets two or three times, comparing the results of each flight. When it's time to return to the classroom, there are groans and pleas to stay out longer. "Just one more launch," someone begs. "I'm sorry," Tim says, "but we have to get back. Maybe we can come out again later." 

This is real science. This is real learning. There is complex vocabulary and there are formulas and mistakes. It is messy and fun, filled with tape, questions, unknown and known information, and the joy of discovery. This is Foote School.

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Since 1916, The Foote School has provided child-centered education that nurtures creativity, excellence and joy in learning.

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