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Straw Rockets

Engineering Math NASA Science
Time 60 minutes or more
Age 6 and older
Group Size 4 or more
Tags Air, Astronomy, Design,   more...
Estimating Experiment Math Measurement NASA Pencils Rockets Space Straws

3…2…1…blast off!

Engineering activities give kids a chance to develop problem solving and observation skills, to work with interesting and engaging tools and materials, and to learn how to work as a member of a team.  In this activity, children get a chance to do all that—and to launch their creations into the air! This is a simple, but very fun way to connect children to the science and engineering that NASA aerospace engineers, rockets scientists, and others use when they design and create the huge rockets that we send into space.

Preparation

This activity requires some good fine motor skills, so be aware of where your students are – younger children may need to be paired up with older students in order to participate.

Read the instructions before running this activity. Set up a launch area for the rockets.

Straw Rockets

Suggested Materials

  • Clear Tape Rolls – 1/4” tape (2 per team)
  • Regular-sized Individually Wrapped Drinking Straws (1 per person)
  • Giant-sized Individually Wrapped Drinking Straws (3 per team)
  • Copy paper (a few sheets per team) – this can be recycled paper with printing on it, though plain paper is preferred
  • Rulers (1 per team)
  • Scissors (1 pair per team)
  • Meter Sticks or Tape Measures (2 per team)
  • Masking tape (1 per team, for marking their launches on the floor)
  • Small paper clips (for the payload – see “Make it Better”)
1

Make it Matter

Opening Discussion

Ask your students if they have ever seen a rocket before. What do we use rockets for? If you can, show them some NASA images or videos of rockets (there are a few example in Resources, above, to get you started, and you can also share some of the examples listed below in “Suggestions”). What do these rockets all have in common? Ask your students to list the parts of a rocket, and write the list down on chart paper, a white board, etc. where everyone can see it. Make sure that a “nose” or “tip” (called a nose cone), fins, a body, and something about propulsion or “power” are all included on the list. NOTE: Not every rocket has fins or even a nose cone, but for the purposes of this activity, it is good to look at the possible parts of a rocket and how those parts can impact its performance.

Ask students to brainstorm examples of “payloads” NASA (and others) delivers into space using rockets. Some ideas might include:

Tell your students that you would like them to design their own mini rocket models for launching whatever payload they can imagine up into space.

The Challenge

Create and launch your own (tiny) model rocket!

2

Make it Happen

Doing the Activity

  1. This activity involves launching small projectiles. While they are only made of straws and paper, it is still a good idea to exercise safety precautions, namely, making sure that children know not to launch their rockets while facing anyone. This can be accomplished by setting teams up in a line, all facing the same way; by having teams work in a circle with each team facing out; or by having a central launching area, which is set up as the only place where teams may launch their rockets.
  2. Divide the group into teams of 3-4 children and distribute the materials to each team.
  3. Share the challenge with your students – they must create a mini rocket that they will launch, using their breath, from a straw. Their challenge is to create a rocket that travels straight and far. Give them these basic steps to rocket creation:
    • Each child will have one skinny straw – this is each child’s launcher.
    • Each team will have three wider straws – these are the rocket bodies.
    • Fold down the end of one of the wide straws and tape it down. This will create a closed end of the straw, leaving one end open. This closed end is the “nose cone” of the rocket.
    • Slide the remaining open end of the wide straw over one of the skinny straws.
    • Head over to the rocket launch area, take a deep breath, aim the straws (away from people), and blow into that skinny straw to launch the wide-straw rocket prototype. What do you notice about how it flew? Can you think of elements you could add to the rocket to improve its performance? Should you change your launching technique?
    • Prepare the other two wide straw rockets by creating nose cones for them as well. Attempt a few test launches with each rocket.
    • Make some changes to your rockets, using the materials you have, to change how the rockets fly. Use the list of parts of a rocket that the class created together for ideas of changes you can make – how could you add fins, change the body or nose cone, or adjust the power or propulsion you are creating with your breath? What other changes might you make? After each change, test your rocket at the testing facility, and make sure to try a couple of launches. How did each adjustment you make to your rockets change how they fly?
    • Mark your launches on the floor with a piece of masking tape, and write your team’s name on the tape so you can keep track of your progress. You could also add a launch number to the tape, for an even more accurate record.
  4. You may need to help some teams get started figuring out how to add fins (cut shapes out of paper, tape the fins on to the rockets), change the rocket body (cut the rocket, or connect straws together, or add elements using paper), etc. Pay attention to how big the fins, body adjustments, and other new elements are – if some of these features are too big, they may negatively impact the rocket. The best way for kids to see this is not for you to tell them, but for them to add these features and launch their rockets. Focus their observations on how the changes have changed their rocket flight.
3

Make it Click

Let’s Talk About It

After each team has tested a few rockets, bring the whole group together to talk about what they did. It would be a good idea to ask teams to leave the rockets at their work stations, and have this discussion away from the materials – it is very hard to concentrate on a conversation with an awesome rocket in your hands!

Did any teams have very successful launches? How do they define success? A straight-traveling rocket? One that travels a long distance? Both? Have teams take turns talking about their process, sharing the things they tried and changed, and showing some of their designs. If they had some success, what changes contributed to it? What else might they add to their rockets?

If they do not come up, introduce the idea of variables – that is, things that teams can change about their rockets that change how they perform. Remind teams that when they are testing their designs, they should change one variable at a time, and keep everything else exactly the same, so they can have a better idea of how the change impacted their rocket. Create a list of the variables they can change. Your list should include these:

There may be others as well. Tell teams that you would like them to explore these different variables, and how changing them changes their rockets. Ask them to especially pay attention to:

Finally, set up a target for teams to aim at – this could be a globe, an archery-style target drawn on a piece of chart paper, a chair…whatever you like. Ask teams to aim for this target when they launch. How does having a target change their launching technique?

4

Make it Better

Build On What They Talked About

Give teams one more challenge – they should add a “payload” (a few taped paper clips) to their straw rockets.  Is it better to locate this extra weight up high near the nose cone, in the middle of the rocket, or lower on the rocket near the fins? Have teams go back to their designs and give them plenty of time to construct, test and refine. Encourage teams to add colors and/or designs to their rockets. You might have one or two more “Make it Click” check-in discussions over the session, particularly if the kids are engaged, and any teams are either making great discoveries, or are struggling. At the end, have each team line up and attempt to hit the target, giving them a few tries, and then have one final wrap up discussion to share what they discovered.

Suggestions

  • Each child has their own skinny straw for the purposes of hygiene. But because each child has a straw, they will all want to launch the rockets. Managing this is an important part of your job – make sure kids are taking turns as the “launchers”. If they are not sharing the responsibility well, or if you would rather not even find out if they can, you could assign the roles of “Launcher #1”, “Launcher #2”, etc. to each child on each team, but assure them all that they will get to serve as launcher at some point. Every 10 minutes or so, announce that the next launcher is up, “OK – Launcher #2 is now piloting the rockets!” Make sure you are as even-handed about this turn-taking as possible.
  • Note from the field: Some afterschools that have tried this activity suggested that each student have their own wide straw rocket bodies, because they had a difficult time with some kids taking over the entire construction. Also, some students did not feel entirely comfortable blowing into the shared rocket body even though they had their own straws as launchers.
  • Try this activity in a gym, cafeteria or even outside (but make sure it isn’t too windy – these rockets are only made out of straws and paper!).
  • There are often a few solutions to optimizing variables like rocket size, fin shape and size, weight, tightness of the rocket on the straw, etc. Any time you see an inventive solution, stop the teams and ask the team that came up with that solution to share it with the rest of the group. For example, if a team wanted to make the wide straw fit more snugly over the skinny one, they might put some tape around the skinny straw. This may work, and it may not – but the solution is a creative one, and the team will learn something from it; and the larger group can benefit from that learning as well.
  • If you would like to be even more accurate with your variables, you can encourage teams to use a protractor to track the angle at which they are launching their rockets, and get them to try to either keep that variable constant, or investigate it in order to determine the optimal rocket launch angle for their design.
  • NASA knows a lot about rockets, as you might imagine. Visit their many websites for a wealth of information, images, and more activities. Here are a couple of places to start:
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