STEM becomes STEAM but Model Rockets Still rule!
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Recently a lot of STEM advocates have begun calling it STEAM, adding the concept of Art to the reality of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. I think that art adds so much to the other’s. I have often argued that looking at a block of stone and seeing a statue in that block is as much math as it is art. It is the science of understanding (through practice) the tinsel strength of the specific rock you are using.

Personally I am a huge fan of the merger and have long included art as a component of my STEM presentations.

Let’s for a moment take one of my personal favorite activities – launching a model rocket. First off this would appear to be a wholly scientific experience but it is not. Let’s break down the activity into three distinct components and ultimately three lesson’s you can use with your kids at home.

  • Building the rocket: first off this is best done the first time by an Estes Rocket kit. They are very straight forward and easy to assemble. The second part is decorating the Rocket. Due to the nature of the paint required I recommend you do your first Rocket with colorful sharpies rather than paint – more fun to decorate and no fumes. The important things here are to test and make sure the nose cone releases smoothly and that you have packed the rocket properly. Wadding in the wrong place will burn your parachute and well, lose your rocket. Then make it the most beautiful rocket you can. This is a great chance to introduce two topics:
    • Force and Motion
    • Artistic Perspective
  • Lesson two is planning your launch. You have to pick a site that has enough clearance for the force and motion results you got in that first lesson. Like Kites, Rocket’s floating on parachutes are drawn to trees. Plan the launch site carefully. The other side of launching a rocket is getting to the site as well. Make sure you can get to where you want to launch the rocket without a huge fuss. Now you can introduce more topics
    • Force review – and let’s see how far (distance) this Rocket will go
      • How far up in the air (important to know – check the FAA web site for rules in your area. There are ceilings for how high your rocket can go depending upon where you live)
      • How far it will travel under power (distance away from the launching area)
      • How long it will float once the parachute release.
      • lots of introduction to photography here – how do you take pictures of a fast moving object? Pictures of the graceful decent via parachute are also nice.
  • Lesson three: Let’s launch this thing. You know how far its going up. You know how long it will be in powered flight so you can talk about the fact that the earth moves. And you can roughly estimate how long it will graceful float back to earth. Place the rocket on the pad. Now you have more topics you can introduce:
    • Drawing perspective – the rocket on the launch pad. Let’s use creativity here – what will it look like 2 seconds after ignition. What will it look like as it arcs into the air? What if it explodes?
    • Photography – setup different cameras, one for the launch and one to track the Rocket in flight.
    • Check your math –
    • Deploy spotters along the project path.
    • Put a circle on the group where you believe the rocket will land (based on the calculations)
    • Estimate the wind – are there any variables that would impact the wind as the Rocket rises in the air.
    • Measure the environment (air temperature etc.)
  • Launch – retrieve and launch again.

I’ve done this with 4th graders, 2nd graders and my own kids. No matter what it is a great blending of the what and how art and STEM. I published much of this (I’ve added to it since 1990) in an article for The Hoosier Science Teacher way back in 1990. You can’t imagine the look on everyone’s face when they successfully retrieve their rocket. From artist to future engineer everyone is smiling.

STEAM is great for teaching and really good for team building as well!


Scott Andersen

IASA Fellow

2 thoughts on “STEM becomes STEAM but Model Rockets Still rule!

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