"It's Literally Rocket Science"

  • Upper School

Tenth graders took to the Manse Field early this fall to test the predictions of their desired outcomes for the model rockets they built during their Integrated Science Energy class.

During their study of the conservation of energy, students learned that energy is never created or destroyed. To test this, they decided to build rockets from 2-litre soda bottles and determine the potential energy of the rocket based on the pressure and volume of air in the projectiles. They used this data to predict how high each rocket should fly.

"In a perfect world, it would be a very high rocket flight," said Upper School Science Department Head Lee Zanger. "But, it is literally rocket science, and there are many factors that prevent us from reaching those ideal heights."

While given some guidelines about rocket design, students made their own decisions about the placement of the stabilizing wings and the design of the aerodynamic cone. They then tested the stability of their rockets and added ballast to make the rockets fly true.

As they watched launch after launch, students noted similarities in the rockets' flight patterns, and then discussed possible reasons for the lower than predicted heights and potential design tweaks.

"For their lab reports," Mr. Zanger explained, "they will have to describe their design process, including how they decided on wing design, nose cone design, and ballast placement, use trigonometry to find how high their rockets flew, and give ten reasons why they did not reach the predicted height. Finally, following engineering protocol, they will have to give advice to next year's class on how to improve the design of the rockets."

While these launches may not have reached the anticipated heights, the opportunity for hands-on learning and active problem-solving surpassed expectations. Students were motivated to learn about gas laws to understand how pressure is created; they were able to see the interaction of gas pressure, potential energy, kinetic energy, and opposing forces like friction; and, they used trigonometry to analyze the flight of the rockets. Students, energized by the project and seeking more challenge, also elected to conduct research on aerodynamics and rocket design. And, perhaps most fun of all, the class got to be outside on a beautiful day firing rockets and entertaining passersby.

Developed by members of the Upper School Science Department, the Integrated Science Program incorporates aspects of chemistry, biology and physics into each of Key's required Upper School science classes in lieu of teaching them separately. Through purposeful integration, the meaning and relevance of abstract topics become evident because students apply their learning as they explore topics traditionally found in other disciplines.

For more on Key's Integrated Science program, visit www.keyschool.org/IntegratedScience