The Rocket Project

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As Blue Dot Education was starting, Brian Delgado’s Weather Balloon Experiments were redefining what adventurous projects with students could look like.  I had been teaching Chemistry at High Tech High for a long time, and this inspired me to try something bold in my class over the next few years.  In my  experience, I found that many of my students considering science to be challenging because it combined complex ideas to abstract contexts.  I was interested in making the context less abstract.  At some point,  I remember watching a video of amateur rocket engineers sending a rocket to space, and I was struck in a weird way by it.  I wondered if I could try that with students.  It seemed crazy, so I met with Brian at a bar to share this idea and see what he though about it.  He said it was a great idea, so I had the confidence I needed and went with it. This was the beginning of our Blue Dot Rocket Program.

Looking back, day 1 of this project would set the direction for the entire program.  I didn’t know where to start, so the students and I began at the same point, taking the first steps together. I gave them paper to wrap around a tube to make small paper rockets that fits on a simple air launcher I made from online designs.  I urged them to use their intuitive curiosity and just build, mainly because that’s what I was doing.    Within an hour, every student had a paper rocket to launch.  We got all kinds of results.  Some blew up, some spun out of control, and some flew brilliantly.  We went back to the class and had a discussion about what worked, what didn’t, and what we could do to better design our next iteration.  We then got right into it.  We launched a second round of rockets near the end of day 1, and the results surprised me.  Nearly every rocket flew straight and reached impressive heights.  What’s more, the students were thrilled, and were already sharing ideas and collaborating with each other for the next build.  This experience revealed how the work should proceed – I would partner with the students, and build a community of creative practitioners around the work and our goals.  I understood that I would never have all the answers, but my value would be  in modeling and coaching adult learning habits and behaviors.

Through projects involving Brian, Adam Borek, Mike Strong and I, this process continued, and the direction for each successive step was made obvious by remaining questions from previous work.  We went from paper air rockets to water rockets.  From water rockets to small Estes kits and motors.  From Estes kits and motors to small scratch builds, and later with our own motors.  Then onto creating small scale balsa rockets to launch locally from school sites.  We now have had an entire team of 50 students successfully design and fabricate high power rockets capable of reaching over 8,000 feet and near supersonic speeds, our Pheonix Series Rockets.  Along the way, when needed, we constructed thrust stands, launch systems, electronic ignition systems, recovery systems, and worked with amateurs and professionals using specialized equipment.  We also dove deeply into relevant concepts in physics, chemistry, engineering, programming, mathematics, and humanities.  Each cohort gets up to speed quickly, picking up where the previous cohort left off, and then venturing onto something new. There’s been a passing of the torch, of sorts, and it has been fun to watch the community grow around this program.

In retrospect, it’s been shocking to see how we’ve been able to get as far as we have pursuing this seemingly overly challenging project for high school students.  What’s more, it could have easily never happened.  Brian recently shared with me that he initially thought that I was insane when I told him about this idea at the bar.  Had he mentioned how crazy he thought it was at the time, I may have been too apprehensive to even start.  It didn’t fit the mold of anything traditional in education, and I hardly knew anything about rocket science or engineering.  But with encouragement, I tried it out.  Once I had that day 1 experience, I learned how I could redefine my role as a teacher under a new educational approach – following a process of doing real work, not knowing exactly what to do and what outcome to expect, but still partnering in an intellectual adventure toward a shared vision.  In this context, my role is less about disseminating content, and more about helping students become more refined learners and creative practitioners.

We still have a long way to go.  This upcoming semester, we’re prototyping the next iteration – a 6 inch diameter, 8 foot rocket designed to reach 30,000 feet and supersonic speeds. One more step in Blue Dot Rocketry, and a bit closer to reaching that insane dream of high school kids sending a rocket to space!

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