Using Model Rockets to Ignite Students' Interest in STEM

Educators not only need to keep kids interested in STEM, they also must help them see it as a career path. One way to do that is through building and launching model rockets.

In the near future, the days of conceptual learning will become classroom pedagogy of the past. Increasingly, teachers, students and school leaders are seeking hands-on activities, real-world application and cause-and-effect learning in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

STEM careers are projected to increase 17 percent by 2018; however, during the past two decades, college students graduating with these subjects are down 24 percent.

And educators need to keep kids not only interested in STEM, but also help them see it as a career path.

One way to do that? Teach STEM through hands-on experience building and launching model rockets. And three educators in South Carolina are doing just that.

For the past 30 years, Dr. Edward P. Donovan, an adjunct professor in natural sciences and engineering at the University of South Carolina Upstate; his wife Sharon Donovan, a retired private school science teacher; and Garrison Hall, a middle public school science teacher have presented a model rocketry workshop at the annual South Carolina Science Council, a state science teacher’s organization.

“In this day and age, students very rarely get to build something like a model rocket,” said Dr. Donovan. “They feel a big sense of accomplishment when the model rocket is built and then successfully launched. Many of our students and teachers continue to do model rocketry themselves and many of them add it to their STEM curriculum. We also relate the model rocketry to what NASA does when they launch missions to space and our students and teachers leave with a greater appreciation of what NASA scientists and engineers do.”

Helping these three educators to accomplish this is the Estes-Cox Corp., which has manufactured hobby products for the model rocket industry since 1958, and has since developed an educator program that aims to inspire students' imaginations through hands-on, explorative learning with model rocketry; provide teachers and youth leaders with free lesson plans and curriculums that incorporate model rocketry; and ultimately motivate students in STEM and develop their problem-solving skills.

“The children who are learning this and getting involved in STEM are our future engineers, technicians, pilots and astronauts," said Dave Talbot, the national sales manager at the Estes-Cox Corp. "So teaching them now and preparing them for a potential career in aerospace is truly exciting.”

More than 30,000 elementary, middle, junior high and high schools have incorporated rocketry into curricula to teach concepts such as gravity, trajectory, thrust, principles of flight, aerodynamics, Newton's Third Law of Motion and problem-solving.

When building a lesson plan, the Estes Educator Program prompts the educator for the grade level, subject matter and lesson duration. Subject matters include language arts, math, science, social studies and technology. Lesson plans range from one day to three days.

After specifying such information, the program provides the teacher with a suggested lesson plan and equipment necessary based on the number of students indicated. According to its website, each student can build and launch an Estes model rocket for about $8. The website also lists organizations to support teachers with grants for teaching with model rockets.

“There’s such an emphasis on STEM, and this is such a natural fit because it’s applied science,” Talbot said. “It helps the educator who may not be familiar to get started right away. We try to make it as easy as possible. And it can be used over and over again. The rockets themselves can be flown many times — as long as you can recover it safely!” 

Through the website, teachers also have access to free resources, worksheets, PowerPoint presentations, videos, news stories and publications related to various lessons and subject matters. 

In the same way that that NASA scientists experiment with different challenges and solutions, the Estes Educator Program provides teachers and students strategies and options to alter experiments. Students can experience the variations among different rockets. And they are able to experiment, build different tests and see cause and effect.

“Their fingers, hands and minds are all involved, and they are seeing it applied,” Talbot said. “It’s not just a theory. They are seeing lift off and recovery. It’s an introduction to science.”

In addition to Estes, the National Association of Rocketry has many educational resources, as does NASA and the Team America Rocketry Challenge.