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Model Rockets and STEM Education

Posted October 25, 2018 12:00 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: education model rocket STEM

Last weekend, my son received a model rocket kit for his sixth birthday. Having built and launched rockets when I was a kid, I was excited to take it out to a local soccer field and try it out. The smell of burnt-out engines immediately brought back memories of my own rocketry adventures.

For those unfamiliar with the hobby, model rockets are small, lightweight scale models made of a cardboard tube, plastic nose cone and plastic or balsa fins. Rockets are powered by small, cylindrical engines – most of which use black powder propellants – inserted into the tail end. Hobbyists plug an electric match into the nozzle end of the engine and ignite the propellant using a battery-powered controller clipped to the match’s wire. The whole apparatus is fired off of a launch pad with a thin vertical rod to guide the rocket’s trajectory.

While combining children and black powder might not seem like the best idea, model rocketry is a safe and enjoyable hobby. For a kid my son’s age, model rocketry is great on a few levels. On one hand, people of any age generally get a thrill launching anything hundreds or thousands of feet in the air. But model rocketry can also provide an opportunity for education in science and engineering.

Choosing an engine for a flight is a good place to start. Low-power commercial rocket engines are rated using a [letter][number]-[number] system. The letter indicates the engine’s class, which describes its total impulse. For example, “A” engines have a total impulse of between 1.26 to 2.5 newton-seconds, while “C” engines have a total impulse of between 5.01 and 10 newton-seconds. The first number represents average thrust, expressed in newtons. The second number is the delay, in seconds, between propellant burnout and the ejection charge, which deploys the parachute or other recovery system.

Parents of younger kids will obviously want to keep the physics to a minimum, but a child as young as six could understand the importance of choosing the correct engine. A heavier or larger-diameter rocket that needs more thrust to get off the pad would benefit from a higher first number. And it’s easy to explain that launching in a smaller field on a windy day would call for less total impulse, unless the kid never wants to see his or her rocket again.

Finally, kids and parents can experiment with different delay times relative to the size and shape of the rocket. Too little delay and the parachute may deploy while the rocket is still coasting; too much and it may hit the ground before the recovery system deploys. Kids can benefit from learning that no flight is a failure if they’re able to learn more about an ideal engine for their particular model.

Older kids would likely benefit from a more in-depth explanation of engine performance, maybe even including graphs, curves and formulas. NASA maintains a helpful Beginner’s Guide to Rockets that goes into detail about aerodynamics, thermodynamics and propulsion systems.

Have you tried model rocketry, either alone or with kids? If so, did you try to incorporate STEM education?

Image credits: Justin Lebar / CC BY-SA 3.0; U.S. Air Force photo)

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#1

Re: Model Rockets and STEM Education

10/25/2018 12:20 PM

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#3
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Re: Model Rockets and STEM Education

10/25/2018 1:24 PM

A similar incident happened to me when I was a kid -- our launch pad tipped over just as we hit the ignition, so the rocket launched horizontally instead of vertically. Luckily we were on a large farm, so it didn't plow into anything, and it pointed away from where we were standing.

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Re: Model Rockets and STEM Education

10/25/2018 12:30 PM

Model rocketry is similar to the Lionel train around the Christmas tree. Seeing a train go round and round quickly loses interest. Interest can be re-ignited by building a layout (model railroading). Rocketry can follow the same path as you have mentioned.

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Re: Model Rockets and STEM Education

10/25/2018 1:43 PM

"less total impulse"

No kid wants that! They want it to go as high as possible. Of course it ends up being a lesson in common sense once they see their rocket stuck in a tree.

An elementary school friend of mine brought in a 3 stage D-engine monster of a rocket and we launched it during science class only to watch it drift nearly a half mile away on the way down. He and another classmate ran after it and recovered it only to face detention for leaving school grounds.

I'll agree, model rockets are an excellent tool for grabbing kids' attention and adding fun to learning about science and engineering.

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#5

Re: Model Rockets and STEM Education

10/25/2018 7:04 PM

Child: Will it shoot up as high as the clouds?

Adult: How high do you think the clouds are?

Child: I don't know!

Adult: Should we guess?

Child: OK, but how?

Adult: [ explains how cloud base can be 'estimated' from weather temperature and dew point numbers]

Child: Gee, I didn't know that!!!

Adult: Well, NOW you do...so, do you think your rocket will reach the clouds?

Child: Hm-m-m-m...maybe we need a BIGGER rocket motor?!?!

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Re: Model Rockets and STEM Education

10/25/2018 11:49 PM
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Re: Model Rockets and STEM Education

10/26/2018 9:55 AM

Model rockets were fun with parachutes until I learned that I could combine D engines with m-100's and could create ballistic missiles.

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Re: Model Rockets and STEM Education

10/26/2018 11:16 AM

LOL! And 7 firecrackers would fit in the end of a D engine too. Taped to a dowel you could launch it like a giant bottle rocket.

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Re: Model Rockets and STEM Education

10/26/2018 10:09 AM

Being raised on the farm with a great work shop my older brother and I would build home made guns and rockets. black pipe, icing sugar, charcoal, salt peter and some other word of mouth chemicals that could be purchased.

It ended when my brother was melting the components in a frying pan to pour in the rocket but it caught fire and he went to throw it out of the shack and it spilled on the back of his hand and left a very nasty burn, too big to hide from parents.

No doubt we are lucky to be alive given the extreme danger but I must admit at age 74 still fond memories. Damn we had fun until we got caught.

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Re: Model Rockets and STEM Education

10/26/2018 11:12 AM

I built a Cherokee D When I was in College and we tracked it until we could't see it any more. The chute popped out and it drifted on the thermals and I never saw it again.

But, we had data! Angles and weights and all with three spotters. We took the data to our Physics professor at the JC and figured it broke the sound barrier at 5' and maxed out at 850mph at 7' and reached an altitude of 1/4mile. Crazy fast and higher than expected.

We launched from the soccer field at Skyline College in San Bruno and we were high enough at 1/4 mile to hit a jet out of SFO! We didn't hit one of course but still, not bad for a piece of cardboard and balsa wood.

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Re: Model Rockets and STEM Education

10/26/2018 1:42 PM

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