Winter Rocket Launches Bring Frosty Physics Fun

Frigid conditions couldn’t keep our Upper School physics students from getting some first-hand experience with the principle of energy conservation as science teachers Elizabeth Druger and Xiao Zhang recently led the charge across our ice-speckled turf field to launch model rockets.

In preparation for this series of experiences, students used class time to determine some mathematical variables, specifically, the mass of the rocket and the published value for the impulse and burn time of the rocket engines they would be using. With this data in hand, they were armed with the physics equations to calculate the theoretical maximum height of the rockets and compare it to values obtained by on-board altimeters. Students also took time to add some style to their scientific substance with many unique designs and color combinations.

Section by section, each group of students loaded their rockets, plywood launch platform and safety equipment onto a wagon that was towed onto the field and arranged into a makeshift mission control. Student groups were then instructed in the final details of the launch process, and combined their efforts to align their rocket on the launching platform, hook the leads of their rocket engine igniter to the launch control and—after a countdown—depress two buttons on the control to ignite the engine and propel each rocket into the sky.

Once they launched their rockets, students retrieved them and reviewed experimental data of the maximum height using altimeters attached to their rockets, which revealed the effects of air resistance on flight. Students used this information to discuss the reasons for differences between the theoretical values they determined in the classroom and experimental values they gained on the field.

In reflecting upon the success of this piece of curriculum, Druger shared, “Not only do these rockets represent real-world applications of physics, they spark curiosity. Students wanted to know if their predictions were correct or if alterations to their rocket might’ve created higher velocities or altitudes. Even better, students realized that ‘rocket science’ is doable and very fun.”

Zhang concluded, “Next semester the physics class students will construct a one-string electric guitar for their second semester capstone project. We hope the students will show as much enthusiasm as those who participated in the first semester rocket project.”

Click here for photos of the launch.
Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.