Sunday, June 26, 2016

Rocket Camp Last Year - What I Learned

Launch last Friday - it never fails to blow their minds

Week Two of rocket camp ended with a launch on Friday. Tomorrow begins the final session of the summer.

My last post on this blog was two weeks ago, yet I still get regular page views each day. I certainly don't mean to leave you hanging, but I've been busy!

Teaching rocket camp has certainly been challenging, but quite rewarding. Week One this year, the camp was overbooked, and wrangling that many kids can be tough. But launch day makes the whole week worthwhile.

Sam preps his rocket.

* * *

Before I get into this year's report on Rocket Camp, let me talk about last summer's experience.

Last year was the first time I'd ever done this. The first time I'd taught anything, the first time I'd worked with kids, and the first time I'd had to come up with some kind of plan for a week's worth of group activities.

A lot of rocketeers have had some kind of opportunity to share rocketry with students. Some get asked to come in for an hour and give a quick talk on the subject. Some hold a small demo launch at a local middle school or high school. Some help Cub Scout or Boy Scout troops or 4-H clubs with build nights.

But I think I got a really rare opportunity here. I would teach three classes, each one week long, three hours per day for five days. That's 15 hours to focus on rocketry - a lot of time to fill! The fact that the day camp was run by a local community college meant that they had a pretty good budget, so I could submit a purchasing list and have all the rocket kits, motors, paint, etc. that I thought we'd need.

We would be in a large classroom with a white board, a computer, and a projector, and lots of electrical outlets, so I'd be able to do a lot of stuff - show videos and slide shows, demonstrate stability, design, and simulations with OpenRocket.

There was also a robot arm.

With as many hours as the class would last, it looked like it might be possible for me to really go into depth on the subject of rocketry. A lot of people would say - and some even advised me, when I asked questions in online forums - that you need to keep it simple! But I decided I'd have the time to challenge these students, and see what I could teach them. Kids can surprise you with what they are able to learn, especially if you make the subject fun and find interesting ways to explain or illustrate ideas. How simple or complicated you decide to get with your rocketry curriculum will depend on a lot of things, especially how much time you have.

A teacher friend of mine advised me to have more material than I thought I'd need for each day. If I ran out of time and didn't get to everything, I could drop some of the less important stuff or push something off to the next day. But if I ran out of stuff for the day, then I'd be struggling to fill the time. I came up with a plan for the first day, plotting out each activity we'd work on and how long I thought each thing would take, with a couple of optional things if we got through it faster than I'd anticipated. I walked in on Day One feeling pretty confident. By the end of Day One, I knew I'd need to revise my plan...

I learned a lot from the experience, not the least of which is that people who run camps like this will not necessarily know anything about rocketry. You must be very specific about what you need, and check and double-check that the tools and materials you're provided with are the correct ones. Ivy Tech College for Kids includes classes on cooking, magic, computer animation and several other subjects. The camp directors don't actually know that much about what I'm teaching.

Here's an example: I provided an exhaustively spelled-out shopping list last year, but failed to double-check on what items had actually been purchased. First decision I had to make was obviously what rocket kits we'd be building, and at what skill level.

I looked at several of the educational bulk packs of rocket kits available. Because of all the time, I decided I needed a Skill Level 1 rocket. If you have less time to build, an E2X or Easy-to-Assemble kit would be a better choice. But the point of this class was mainly "learn to build and fly rockets," and with all the time we'd have, I decided we'd need something that takes a little time to assemble.

I selected the Estes Alpha bulk pack, a classic "first rocket" kit used in a lot of rocketry camps. We'd have three weeks, with a possibility of 10 kids per week, so I asked for three bulk packs to be purchased.

Estes Alpha - a Skill Level 1 kit with balsa fins

When I arrived on the first day of class, I found that we only had one bulk pack - of the Estes Alpha III. I was pretty careful to spell this out, but you can see how the confusion happened - "Estes Alpha - 3 packs" got interpreted as "Estes Alpha III pack."

Obviously, this wouldn't be enough rockets for the whole three weeks, but the main problem that I had here is that while the Alpha is a Skill Level 1 kit which requires a little sanding, a little gluing, and a little time to build, the Alpha III is an E2X kit which takes only about 20 minutes. I built one in 10. The fins come in a single plastic unit, and gluing is minimal.

Estes Alpha III - similar to the Alpha, but much simpler to build

Oh, no! I thought. How am I going to fill the time? I should also mention here that the weather was supposed to be rainy most of the week, so it's not like we could go out launching every day.

An E2X kit is great if you don't have much time, and need something you can build quickly so you can get out there flying in a few hours. All you have to do is wait for the glue to dry, and you're ready.

For my purposes, though, I needed something which took some time. And I didn't want to merely go launch some rockets with these kids. I was trying to inspire them.

One reason I never built the model rocket kit I had as a kid was that I didn't believe I could. I'm no good with my hands, I told myself. I'll only mess this up. I want these kids to realize that they can build something with their own two hands that will fly at 200 miles per hour up into the sky, and it's safe and legal, and not that hard. We needed something which required just a bit more effort to assemble. That way, when they were done with the camp, perhaps they'd feel like they could do this on their own without me there to help.

The second major misinterpretation of the shopping list was the glue. While I'd asked for wood glue, specifying Titebond II (not because it's the "best glue," but because it's what I use at home and I'm familiar with it), what had been purchased was Elmer's Wood Glue Max.

I have no idea what this stuff is supposed to be used for, but model rockets ain't it! It's gritty and weird, and I couldn't get it to stick to anything! Perhaps it's great for wood projects if you press the pieces together in a vise or something. Fortunately, I had brought my tool kit with me, and happened to have a bottle of glue.

I also discovered on the first day that the Alpha had been built at the camp the year before, and a couple of the kids were not too keen on building the same rocket. They wanted to try something new.

I talked to the camp director and told him about the kit problem. At my suggestion, he ran to a local hobby shop and bought out every Estes Skill Level 1 rocket kit they had in stock. I had to buy time on Day One by starting assembly on the three left-over kits from a previous year, as a group project. There was a Wizard and a couple of Alphas. Eight kids working on three rockets together do not have much fun. It was a rough start.

The "Janky Wizard," one of the rockets we started together on Day One. One fin was damaged while sanding, so
I called it "janky." One of the kids decided he wanted this to be his rocket, so on Day Two he
completed the construction. Despite the janky fin, the rocket still flew well.

On Day Two, a bunch of different rockets had arrived. This was great, because now the kids had a choice. But it had an unforeseen consequence.

My intention was that we'd build together, step by step, allowing glue to dry while we learned something about rocketry, then move on to the next step. But because each kid had a different kit, all with slightly different instructions, I had to run from person to person helping with this or that, and couldn't build with them. Consequently, rather than, say, gluing centering rings onto a motor tube then waiting for the glue to dry, they'd look at the directions and move on to the next step.

The result was that all the rockets were finished way too quickly. Fins were a bit wonky, glue was everywhere, and despite starting the morning a day behind on our building, by the time the rockets were built, suddenly I had even more time to fill, and not enough stuff to do for the day. I was trying to figure out what else I could teach that day and ended up frantically searching YouTube for some good rocket videos to get us to the end of the day without everyone getting too bored.

On Wednesday, the camp director resigned. Week One was not going the way I'd imagined.

We went into the paint shop to spray primer on the rockets. Due to the weather, we had to sneak the launch in on Thursday rather than Friday, as it was threatening to storm. We'd have to fly the rockets in primer only, and would paint on Friday.

Some of Week One's rockets - Hi Flier, Yankee, Baby Bertha, Hi Flier, Crossfire ISX. Unfinished Alpha in front.
By the end of Week One, I'd gotten a handle on things. I did manage to teach the kids some interesting stuff, which, to my surprise, they did absorb. Some of the parents told me they were surprised at how much physics the kids learned.

I came back for Week Two with a much better plan in mind. We'd all have the same kit - the Estes Viking. We'd skip the primer, as it took too much time. And completely forget "keeping it simple" - we were going to go deep.

Click here for the next part of this series.

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