Byron Center West Middle School eighth-grader Ellise Pierson situated her bottle rocket atop a tripod, readying it for launch.
She and classmate Luke Feuerstein had crafted the rocket with a long cardboard nose, a redesign from their first, to improve aerodynamics. The countdown began: “3, 2, 1,” students chanted. With a loud “whoosh” and a trail of watery exhaust, the rocket flew into the blue sky.
Nearby, using a clinometer, a device to measure height, teacher Jamie Dennett calculated results: “65 feet,” he announced.
Not bad. The day before, the rocket had flown 60 feet.
“We thought it would go farther if it had a steeper nose and three wings instead of four,” said Ellise, who said it’s motivating to work toward a challenge like creating the most powerful bottle rocket.
“It gives you a sense of accomplishment or a goal to work harder,” she said.
The students, in Dennett’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) class, were assigned to create a bottle rocket that can stay in the air as long as possible. While some crafts flew a bit off course or needed emergency redesign, the project resulted in many successful liftoffs.
Students in the seventh- and eighth-grade STEM classes have become used to problem-solving for their experiments. They are receiving first-hand engineering and design experience. Dennett, who also coaches the school’s Science Olympiad team, incorporates challenges used in competition into the class.
Learning the Design Process
Students have built cardboard chairs, made electronic circuits, designed instruments and invented Rube-Goldberg machines, which are contraptions deliberately over-engineered to perform simple tasks in a complicated way. They also planned to make miniature cars propelled by carbon dioxide.
Students take the semester-long class in addition to other science and math classes, but there’s also a big parallel to art, Dennett said. Both focus on the engineering-design process.
“This kind of pairs with our art class,” he said. “We’ve done a lot this year to use the same language in art and STEM.”
Students learn to lead the projects themselves, following guidelines.
“It’s all problem-solving and design-thinking,” said Dennett, who previously taught science. “The one thing that’s been interesting for me is seeing how the kids react. Instead of me saying. ‘This is how it is,’ I give them a problem and say, ‘Try to solve it.’
“Some of the kids have really done well with that and some have been like, ‘Wait? you’re not going to tell us?’ That’s been really cool.”
This Class is a Blast
For the rocket launch, students fashioned their aircrafts out of two-liter bottles, Styrofoam, cardboard and huge amounts of duct tape. They worked in teams to come up with the most aerodynamic models by watching YouTube videos, using research from the NASA website and studying Newton’s Laws of Motion.
“I’m doing physics with them for a lot of this stuff, basically getting them ready for high school physics,” Dennett said.
During the launch, rockets often flew wayward, but some shot straight into the sky. Student Dalton VanderArk’s craft had a successful flight.
“Dalton’s rocket,” Dennett told the class, “according to our estimate, ended up at 77 feet 7 inches.” He explained how to calculate the height using a mathematical formula.
“I love building stuff, so this is my favorite class,” said Dalton, ready for the next launch.
Student Jon Zandstra said it takes focus to complete the projects.
“You’re using your brain a lot with engineering,” he said. “You can show your ideas in your projects.”