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Where art and engineering collide

Third-graders boost their problem-solving skills by building rockets

Kenowa Hills — In art class at Alpine Elementary, third-graders brainstormed ways to travel where no student has gone before: the moon.

Given their mission by art teacher Mikie McVey, the class built rocket ships for their journey using straws, paper, tape and clay. In lieu of actually leaving the Earth and flying to space, the students’ goal for their straw rockets was to fly the farthest across the cafeteria.

Third-grader Emma Trim calculated how many pairs of paper wings her straw rocket needed to make it to “space.” She decided three sets would help it fly farther and faster to the opposite end of the room. 

“If it has more wings, it will keep gliding like how birds fly: they fly up, glide and then glide down to land,” she explained. “I have to make my rocket like a glider and even if it doesn’t work, it will still look cute.”

Becoming Engineers 

Building straw rockets to blast off to “the moon” is one part of a larger STEM unit, also taught by McVey. This is her first year teaching both STEM and art classes, so she incorporates creative, hands-on activities into her lesson plan.

“Third grade does an entire unit on the moon in STEM, so in art class we do missions like ‘Becoming an Astronaut’ and ‘Landing on the Moon’ to learn about careers in science and engineering while creating art,” McVey said. 

McVey’s lessons also include a video featuring careers in science and a short writing prompt. 

Before they were given their rocket materials, the students learned how aerospace engineers design items to fly in space, as well as a simplified, five-step design process that engineers use to solve problems. 

Third-grader Angel Mahoro used those steps to problem-solve her straw rocket’s design as she and classmate Bella Hang worked on their paper wings. 

The Engineering Design Process
As used by aerospace engineers and Alpine Elementary third-graders
Step 1: Identify the problem 
Step 2: Brainstorm a solution
Step 3: Design a plan
Step 4: Build, test and retest
Step 5: Share your solution

“I think I need my wings to be bigger so it will fly faster,” Angel said.

She cut several triangles of different sizes out of her paper before she got two of similar size that she thought would be best for flying. 

Launch Time

After giving the class time to build their rockets, McVey led everyone across the hall for a test launch. Each student took a turn using the straw rocket launcher, set to a specific trajectory angle for maximum flight. They lifted and released the weighted rod in the cylinder to send their rocket across the cafeteria. 

“Three, two, one, blast off!” they yelled before the initial launch. 

Third-grader Thanye Walters’ rocket flew the farthest, almost halfway across the room. Several rockets landed in the middle, but Emma’s did not fly as far as she hoped.  

As an engineer in the midst of testing, she reasoned: “Maybe it wasn’t cute enough.” 

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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