Friday, July 8, 2016

Rocket Camp - Going Deep

Click here for Part 1

When I was a kid, I had a number of science-related and educational toys and kits.

I had a chemistry set. I mixed a few of the chemicals in test tubes a few times. Sometimes they changed color, sometimes not.

Eventually, I stopped playing with the chemistry set. I still know very little about chemistry.

I had a microscope, too. I pulled some hairs from my head, put them on a slide, and looked at how huge they were. I might have even seen some bacteria once or twice. It was pretty cool.

Eventually, I set the microscope aside, and hadn't learned that much about microbiology.

I also had a telescope, through which I couldn't figure out how to find any stars or planets. I think I managed to focus on the moon a couple times.

Not to mention my toy piano and my keyboard. I still can't play the piano.

And my model rocket kit? Well, I never built that, because I didn't think I was any good at making things with my hands.

It is often said that model rocketry is a good hobby for kids, because rocketry is educational. It certainly can be, but I would argue that it can just as easily not be. For every Lifelong Rocketeer or Born Again Rocketeer ("BAR") or aerospace engineer who started with a model rocket as a child, there are dozens or hundreds of people who got a model rocket at the age of 11 or 12, had fun launching it for a summer or two, and then got bored just seeing it go up and come down. Their rockets went into a closet or out with a garage sale, and they forgot all about them.

For these kids, it was fun for a while, but like me with the chemistry set, microscope and telescope, they never learned what made the rocket do what it did, or what the forces were that acted on the rocket, why some rockets perform better and fly higher than others, what interesting things can be done with model rockets, how to design their own rockets, or how their model rockets related to real space launch vehicles. In what ways are they similar to real rockets? How are they different? To a lot of kids, a model rocket is a fun toy that goes up and comes down, and that's about it.

Many kids probably never even learned the basics of the Model Rocket Safety Code, despite the fact that it comes with every kit and every pack of model rocket engines sold. Think of all the appliances you've bought as an adult, where you've opened the box, plugged it in, and thrown everything else out without bothering to read the manual.

Educational toys and hobbies are great for kids, but sometimes a little guidance is needed. Some kids are pretty motivated to learn more, but some don't know that there's more to learn or do. Sometimes, a little extra instruction can open eyes to wider possibilities. You can build rockets that fly higher. You can build rockets that carry interesting payloads. You can design your own and you can make them look cool.

And there's a little math, too. Think math is boring, kid? A little math can help you figure out how high that rocket flew! It isn't that hard, and it's more fun than just sending it up and watching it come down.

My second year of teaching rocket camp is finally done, and I'm back home in Boston. Now it's time to share my experience on this blog.

I'm going to try to break this down into bite-sized chunks, over the course of several blog posts, before getting back to writing stuff for total rocket n00bs. This is both for me and for you.

A lot happened during the three one-week classes I taught. I got several messages from readers who were looking forward to my stories from rocket camp last year. Immediately after finishing, I moved across the country, and as time passed, I kept thinking I need to write that rocket camp stuff. The more I felt like I needed to do it, the less I wanted to do it, and I never finished the series.

Also, as long-time blog readers are aware, I tend to write really long posts. Breaking this down will keep the writing more manageable for me and more readable for you. I'm going to try to keep each post focused on one thing.

And it's been a long time since I've written an informative post for rocketry beginners, which is what this blog is intended to be. In between rocket camp posts, there will probably be stuff for rocket n00bs, as well as updates on The Rocketry Show and whatever relevant news items happen to crop up.

We'll talk about things I did last year and things I did this year, what worked, what didn't, and how I illustrated certain tricky concepts of rocketry to middle schoolers. I hope you'll find something useful here that you can adapt if you get to teach rocketry to kids, whether it's a one-day demonstration or something longer, like in a week long summer camp or science class unit.

* * *

Last year, the weather was stormy all week, with a few minor breaks. Ideally, we'd build rockets all week, then go out for a big launch on Friday. That would probably not work, if the weather forecast was to be accurate (which it turned out to be). We would have to try to sneak in a launch when the weather broke, which meant Wednesday or Thursday. It also meant that we couldn't simply go out and launch every day. I would need to fill the 15 hours with some substance.

A teacher friend of mine advised me to have more material than I'd think I would need, because if I ran out of stuff to show or talk about, I would struggle to fill the time. The kids would get bored, some of them might act up, and the camp would be not much fun for them or me.

Though I tried to "keep it simple" the first week, while still teaching the kids some basics, I realized I needed more material.

So, what did I do?

Over the weekend, I went chapter by chapter in The Handbook of Model Rocketry, and used the headings as a kind of outline. I decided I'd teach the kids everything I knew - or whatever I had time for.

If time is limited to one day or less, you may decide to focus only on what makes rockets work (i.e., Newton's Laws of Motion) and safety, and then do a launch. If you have the kind of time I had, though, I say go for it.

Here's how class started. I went to collect the kids from the drop off point and brought them down to the class. I wore my NASA shirt with my name badge, and hanging from a lanyard around my neck, I had the bright red safety key for my home-built launch controller.

In the classroom, I had a number of my rockets set up on display on the front line of tables, and asked the kids to find a seat. I had the luxury last year of being able to bring all my best-looking, largest rockets. I also had a launch pad set up on the table with a rocket in place. There were a few launch controllers - some from Estes and my own.

I introduced myself, told them how long I'd been building rockets (not long), and then went around the room. I asked each kid his or her name and age, and if he or she had ever built or launched rockets before. The answer is often no, but some kids do have some experience. If they've built or launched before, I ask what rockets they'd flown. A lot of Estes kits are mentioned, and some I-don't-knows, and there are inevitably a few kids who mention that they've launched some bottle rockets or other fireworks.

The mention of fireworks can raise the hackles of some experienced, safety-minded hobby rocketeers, but I'd advise not to overreact when it comes up. I simply say, "OK, so you've launched some fireworks? Well, here we're going to be building and launching model rockets, which are a little different." Then move on.

The subject of fireworks will return when we discuss safety. You certainly don't want to mix the two in a model rocket class, but you'll probably have to have the conversation.

After introductions, I briefly show all the parts of a model rocket. There are some visual materials you can download from Apogee Components and other sources to show as slides or print off, but I prefer to pick up one of my real rockets and show each part. Interacting with the kids is key. "This little tube on the side of the rocket is called the launch lug," I said, and then pointed to one kid and asked, "What do you think this is for?"

From the Apogee Components Rocketry Education Pack, link above

After going over the parts of the rocket, it was time to kick things off with some excitement. "You guys ready to go see a rocket launch??" The answer is always a resounding Yes.

If you have a week-long class like this one, I think doing a launch first thing is important. It kicks things off nicely. The kids get excited and motivated to build something of their own, and you may refer to the flight when talking about this or that. And some kids will be very surprised by it. One of my kids last year remarked that she thought the rocket would only fly "about as high as the (street) lamp." Seeing something jump a few hundred feet in the air is a good motivator.

We all grab some stuff - a rocket, prepped and ready, launch pad, launch controller - and head outside to our designated area. In my case, we were in a parking lot which had been coned off for me by school security. The launch area wasn't huge.

A cheap, small, ready-to-fly rocket is perfect for a first day demo launch. If a fin breaks, your heart won't. No need to overdo it on the power of the motor - most of these kids have never done this before, and launching on an A motor will still thrill them all. You might be surprised that it thrills even you. Even if you are a High Power Rocketeer, the kids' excitement at liftoff is infectious.

For me, my go-to first day demo rocket is the Estes Hi Jinks, given to me by my friend Chad when he moved away. It's nearly identical to an Alpha or Alpha III, with plastic fins and a longer nose cone. It can fly very high on a C motor, but does a great job of demonstrating the phases of rocket flight on an A motor.

I show the kids every aspect of prepping the rocket at the pad - inserting a motor, installing an igniter and the little plastic plug that holds it in place, hooking up the launch controller. By the end of the week, I'll have them all do this for themselves with their own rockets. I tell them all, "We all need to scoot back fifteen feet!" and we all stand back.

"Look over at the flag," I say. "The wind is blowing this way. Which way do you think the rocket will fly?"

The kids will invariably indicate that the wind will fly with the wind, in the same direction that the flag is waving.

"Alright, let's find out!" I say.

At this point, I lift up the safety key hanging from my neck. "This is my launch controller safety key. This ensures I can't launch the rocket while I'm hooking up the igniters. See, pressing the launch button won't do anything if the key isn't in the launch controller," I say, pressing the launch button.

"OK, I'm going to insert the safety key into the launch controller." I put the key in, and the bright red LED continuity light comes on. "OK, my continuity light is on. That means we've got a good connection. We're going to do a countdown from 5! Ready?"

We all count down 5! 4! 3! 2! 1! Launch! and the rocket zips off the pad. The kids go bananas. So do I.

Near apogee, the rocket arcs over into the wind in the opposite direction from what the kids predicted. The parachute comes out, and the kids go chase down the rocket as it lands. That's the great thing about launching with kids - they recover your rockets for you.

We go back inside, and the kids have a seat. "So, did you see which way the rocket flew? It turned into the wind, right? We all thought it was going to go the other way, didn't we? We're going to talk about why that happened this week."

I said, "This week, we're going to build our own rockets, and we're going to launch them. I'm also going to teach you guys some stuff about rockets, so you can do this on your own. Here's what I am going to show you guys this week."

I went to the white board, and told them I'd teach them the following:
  • How a rocket works
  • Model rocket safety
  • How to build a rocket
  • All about model rocket motors - what do the letters and numbers mean, how to pick the right ones, what happens inside, etc.
  • What ground support equipment you'll need - launch pads, launch controllers, etc
  • Rocket stability - what makes the rocket fly straight up?
  • Recovery systems (parachutes, streamers, etc.)
  • Ignition systems - how does a launch controller work, and why do you need one?
  • Rocket aerodynamics - what makes a rocket fly higher and better
  • Payloads - what can you put inside a model rocket
  • Altitude tracking - how do you know how high the rocket flew
  • Clusters and multistage rockets - rockets with more than one motor or engine
  • How to design your own rockets - because you don't need to just build a kit someone buys you. If you understand rocket stability and know where to get the right parts you need, you can make a rocket of your own
  • Where to go from here - an introduction to High Power Rocketry
Now, some people may think this is crazy, especially considering that these are first-time rocketeers, aged 11-14. This is too much. This is too complicated. You need to keep it simple. And what about that thing about High Power Rocketry? These are kids! They can't do that stuff yet!

Let me address that last concern first. I want them to know that you don't have to stop flying rockets when you turn 14 or 15. There's more to look forward to. You can build larger rockets, and eventually fly something really powerful if you want to. Also, some of the class time would include waiting for glue to dry, and sometimes we'd be watching videos. HPR videos are pretty cool, and the kids love them.

But that's pretty much most of the stuff you'll find in The Handbook. Did I teach it all?

No, of course not. I would teach as much as I could, starting with the basics. If the kids seemed to be particularly interested in one topic or another, we'd focus on that. If they seemed not too attentive or not absorbing, we'd stick mainly to a few basics, including safety, and focus on building the rockets and watch some interesting rocket videos. I don't know that I ever got through all of this stuff. But I got through most of it, and I knew I wouldn't run out of material.

Besides, kids have been doing this for decades, and they're capable of a lot. The fact that this year's TARC winners were 8th graders was an added bonus - something to shoot for.

The Odle Middle School Space Potatoes won TARC this year. TARC teams design and build their own rockets.
The prize was $20,000 and a trip to the International Finals in London, England. They are in 8th grade.

Honestly, I didn't care if these kids became lifelong model rocketeers. But I wanted them to have fun, and to learn a few things. I wanted them to learn a little science - something that would come back when they reached high school physics. I wanted them to learn that maybe doing their math homework wasn't such a bad idea, since there is some fun stuff you can use it for (It may seem like a lofty goal, but I was hoping that in my small way I could contribute to them being better prepared for finding a good job when they're older). I wanted them to learn that they are capable of making things with their own hands. And I wanted them to learn that sometimes there's more than meets the eye - more, for example, to rocketry than simply watching something go up and come down.

Click here for the next Rocket Camp post.

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  1. Daniel,
    Outstanding! What a great experience for both the kids and you! Your passion for model rocketry shows up loud and clear in your post. I am sure that your enthusiasm was contagious and the kids not only enjoyed their time, but also learned something that as you say may influence career decisions. Just a wonderful experience. I am looking forward to reading more about the camp.

  2. Terrific article. Keep up the great work.

  3. Great job with the camp. I enjoy reading your blog.