Sunday, October 9, 2011

It's Rocket Science!

Today was the first ever Bloom! Montessori School launch party!

Sorry for the crazy formatting... still fighting with Blogger.

For the past few weeks, the children have been learning about forces- gravity, thrust, and drag. To provide students with a concrete understanding of these principles the children have also been constructing their own Estes Generic E2X model rockets. This afternoon marked the long waited date of their maiden flights.

The hobby of model rocketry was born in 1957 in response to the launching of the Soviet Sputnik satellites and the beginning of the Space Age. Professional rocket engineering companies (like Estes, which began in Denver in 1957) developed quality control procedures which elevated the model rocket motor to a professional level of safety and reliability (in fact, one study found that the safety precautions and operating codes that were put in place have made model rocketry the safest of all hobbies studied, with the exception of stamp collecting).

If the idea of making and launching model rockets with preschool aged children sounds unconventional, I understand. However, model rocketry is a wonderful hobby for young children. Model rocketry is an outstanding, safe, inexpensive parent-child activity- in fact, it was reminiscing about some of my personal memories of building and launching model rockets with my dad that made me want to include this activity in the classroom and I heard several parents telling similar stories about sanding and painting model rockets as children. Model rocketry is also a learning tool in disguise! Model rocketry fosters an understanding of science and technology, while combining craftsmanship, creativity, and cooperation, in pursuit of a goal with some healthy outdoor activity. It also provides children with a great sense of accomplishment and self esteem- if the child follows simple rules and instructions, a successful flight is a certainty (and what could give a child a greater sense of accomplishment than building something that can go up 550 feet!).

Still skeptical? "Can preschool aged children construct their

own model rockets?" you might ask. Absolutely. Estes makes a series of E2X rockets which are practically ready to fly. Use glue to attach some plastic fins and a plastic nose cone, and you are ready to launch. No sanding or special tools required! "Can preschoolers understand the scientific principles involved?" Absolutely! One of my favorite moments of last week was hearing a four year old boy, explain to his mother in perfect detail, how the gas moving out the bottom of the rocket would generate thrust to move the rocket in the opposite direction.

So it was, with great excitement and anticipation, that our aspiring engineers convened at Sunset Middle School this afternoon. We were fortunate to have perfect weather (after a weekend of cold rain, the winds ceased and the sun came out this afternoon just in time for the launch).

T minus twenty minutes: parents began helping to prepare the model rockets by packing them with wadding paper (to prevent the ejection charges from burning the parachute) and packing the parachutes (it is recommended that this be done as close to the time of the launch as possible to prevent it from sticking).

T minus five minutes: the giddy children and their parents made their way to the launch site, where they received some last minute safety instructions, reviewed the parts of their rockets, and reviewed the forces involved in their flight.

T minus two minutes: the children stood in line, clutching their rockets, awaiting their turn to launch.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Lift Off!!

One at time, the children went to stand near the launch pad, begin the countdown, and press the button which would launch their rocket into the air. For our launch, we used Estes A8-3 rocket engines, which generally result in altitudes of 250- 300 feet. There was a lot of cheering, and even a pair of bald eagles which passed overhead, as the rockets went soaring into the air without one mechanical failure (we had a few parachutes that didn't deploy, but not one ignition or ejection charge failure).

After the launch, the children raced off into the field to collect their beloved model rockets. In one of my favorite moments of the day, a little boy told me "I almost didn't come because I was afraid that the launch would break the fins off my rocket, but I am glad that I came." Not one rocket was lost or damaged as a result of the launch!

At the end of the party, we celebrated with (what else?) astronaut ice cream and the children received gift bags containing NASA stickers and NASA coloring books. More than one child was overheard asking when they could launch their rocket again, and several parents inquired about where to purchase launch pads and controllers and which retailers were most likely to be open on a Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps the next generation of aerospace engineers were standing in that field this afternoon... or, the next generation of adults who will have fond memories of enjoying model rocketry with their parents at least.

We would like to thank everyone for coming out to celebrate, and sharing in an afternoon that your child will likely remember for the rest of their lives. Your child's rocket is re-useable. If you would like to further your child's exploration and enjoyment of this activity, you can purchase an electrical launch controller (about $20), some wadding paper (about $6), and Estes engines (about $7 for three) from Hobby Town (1935 North Main Street- very knowledgeable and helpful staff), Hobby Lobby, or online retailers.

We would also like to sincerely thank Hobby Town for purchasing our rockets and engines and for their assistance in finding a good launch site, Susan Green (our real rocket scientist!) for supplying the NASA coloring books, and Tobin Munsat and Mei Lai for jumping in and taking the photos that appear in this post (I would have been so sad if we didn't have pictures- thanks for your help and thoughtfulness!).

Want to read more? There is a hysterical, and informative, report on model rocketry entitled Forty Years of Model Rocketry written by the National Association of Rocketry available at

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