Academics, Upper School

Physics Students Design and Launch Rockets

Throughout much of January, senior Physics students designed, engineered, and built launchable rockets made from recycled plastic bottles.

“This project asks the students to apply their understanding of Newton’s laws to learn more about how the forces of motion are working on the rocket,” says Physics teacher Cecilia Tung. “Students gain a deeper understanding of how the third law of action and reaction applies.”

Students began the project by building a rocket out of scratch, cutting out fins from poster board and creating fuselages out of plastic bottles. Those rockets were pressurized via a bike pump and launched into the air. While the rocket was in flight, students took measurements such as height and airtime. Using their data from the test launch, the students refined their designs and tested again.

When the project was introduced, Cecilia did not give students any tips for what makes a successful rocket, challenging students to find out for themselves. Some of the initial rockets soared high while other tumbled over themselves and flopped to the ground. After the first launch, Cecilia showed students a few videos from NASA and the class discussed centers of pressure and gravity. Students took their new knowledge and re-worked/improved their rockets for a second launch.

Riley W. and Deanna W.’s rocket was largely successful in the initial launch. The two decided to keep the overall structure of their rocket the same but implemented one minor change in their re-worked design.

“We are putting a fairing at the bottom of our rocket,” explains Riley, referring to a protective plate that helps reduce drag on the rocket. “It keeps the bottle completely straight and reduces the airflow near the opening, which should make for a better launch.”

Says Cecilia: “The project helps introduce students to the iterative design process, and if they continue on in science or engineering, it is a process that will appear throughout their lives.”