Testing the rules of Physics

Rocket building teaches the science of flight

Posted: Friday, June 17, 2005

It seems that Isaac Newton and Daniel Bernoulli may have cottoned on to something after all. Children in Betty Nelson's physics-of-flight class successfully sent up their rockets Thursday at the ballfield behind Mendenhall River Community School.

Students screamed as the first model rockets took off with a whoosh. The painted cardboard tubes were soon invisible in the sunny sky until the engine pushed off the white plastic nose cone with a puff of smoke at the flights' highest point.

Then the rockets, slowed down by a red streamer ejected from under the nose cone, fell to Earth in the wavy motion of a shuttlecock. Or most did. A few plummeted like a bullet.

Nelson, a teacher of gifted students at Auke Bay Elementary, first suggested that the assembled parents spread out among the children in case a rocket's streamer, called the recovery system, didn't work.

"Every once in a while a rocket goes straight into the air, the wings fall off ... and it essentially becomes a bullet going straight down," she told the parents.

Hmmm. Sir Isaac didn't have a law against that sort of physics. On second thought, Nelson put the kids in the roofed dugouts unless they were needed to time the flights or measure the angle of the flights' apogee, or highest point.

For two weeks the children - who are going into fourth, fifth or sixth grade - have been studying the physical principles of flight, such as thrust, lift, drag, acceleration and stability.

They learned about Newton's Third Law, the one about equal actions and reactions, and Daniel Bernoulli's principle regarding air flow and air pressure.

The students put together model rockets. And they learned how to build Web pages.

Sam Kurland, 9, said he saw his rocket for the first few seconds of its first flight "and then all I saw was smoke."

The class has been fun, Sam said, especially the process of putting together the rocket.

"You get to paint it. You get to put on the wings. You get to put on the parachute," Sam said. "You do it all yourself. It's not like you buy it in the store ready-made and all you do is blast it off."

The class is one of two that Nelson runs for a $250 fee. The other, beginning July 25, is about simple machines, electricity and gearing theory. Students will build a small electric vehicle.

Nelson, whose summer program is nonprofit, receives financial support from the Auke Bay PTA so she can provide some scholarships. She rents the classroom at Mendenhall River from the Juneau School District.

With the federal No Child Left Behind Law, teachers feel more pressure to cover the curriculum, but there are many topics not in the curriculum, Nelson said.

She uses a lot of hands-on experiments and some lectures in the class.

"If I could teach like this all the time, I would, where it's project-based teaching," Nelson said.

Sam's father, Jon, said the class gives students a chance to concentrate on one topic over two weeks.

"It's kind of amazing that right after the end of the school year, the kids want to spend the time," he said.

Students made altimeters from protractors, cords, straws as viewers, and erasers as weights.

"And then you have a whole group of calculations you have to do," Matthew Staley, 11, said. "It's simple, but it works."

"See that little puff? Got that little puff?" parent Anne Kurland asked two boys who were measuring the angle of the flights' highest point and the ground. They were about 100 feet from the launching pads.

It generally took two or three seconds for the rockets to go up and 15 to 30 seconds to come down, timers said.

Carrie Smith, said her 9-year-old daughter Carmen came home excited and a little tired from the half-day classes.

"I think in school there's a lot of broken-up time. To focus is nice," Smith said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.

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