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Soda Straw Rocket Science
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Soda Straw Rocket Science is an aerospace program for K-12+ students.


Soda Straw Rocket Science is an aerospace program to demonstrate the physics of flight using a small air rocket.  Up to sixteen projects introduce students and their teachers to the aerospace environment - including the design, build, and fly process; teamwork; and competition.
The initial idea to design, build, and fly a small air rocket first came to me several years ago as an activity for my grandchildren, who at that time were ages 4 and 7.  We built the rocket launcher from pipe fittings, an air pressure gauge, a gas valve, an air supply hose, and a water filter tank.  The rockets were constructed from soda straws, ear plugs, and adhesive filing tabs.  My grandchildren found that launching their rockets was not only fun, but also interesting to try different launch angles, launch pressures, and rocket designs.  After that, word got around and I was asked to participate in local school classroom, Cub Scout, and science camp programs.  Small air rockets are particularly suitable as aerospace outreach - the process of designing, building, and flying the air rockets is a good introduction to the aerospace environment.
As an aerospace outreach program for students and their teachers, the program introduces them to an aerospace environment.  Attributes include:
  • Introduces the design, build, and fly process, a fundamental process of aerospace systems development
  • Incorporates teamwork, an essential part of aerospace systems development
  • Illustrates the competitive nature of aerospace systems
  • Is exciting and fun - capturing interest from kindergarten students to adults
Other potential alternatives to using small air rockets include Estes-type hot exhaust rockets and water rockets.  The Estes-type rocket is more spectacular - with fire, smoke, noise, and higher performance.  However, it can only be launched outside the classroom in a large space to be safe.  Another disadvantage is the student has less insight into the physics of the rocket.  A water rocket is also spectacular and is great fun to launch.  However, it is messy and also has less insight into the physics of the rocket.  The small air rocket of this program is safe, clean, and can be launched indoor if necessary.  The flight range can be directly controlled by the chamber pressure, launch angle, and rocket design.  Students are introduced to the experimental and theoretical physics of thrust, total impulse, boost velocity, drag, vertical impact velocity, and flight trajectory.  These are easily predicted with simple physics equations and can be easily confirmed with ground/flight test data.  For these reasons, a soda straw air rocket was selected. 
The aerospace outreach program for the soda straw rocket has been conducted with grades K-12+ students.  As a pre-school student program, it is one hour activity, which can be held either entirely in the classroom or partly inside/partly outside the classroom.  It begins with a ten minute presentation of six videos of rockets, ranging from the large Saturn V moon rocket to the small soda straw rocket, followed by questions.  Next the students are shown how to build a soda straw rocket.  It usually takes about twenty minutes for them to build their rockets.  During the last twenty minutes they shoot off their rockets.
The elementary school program may be a slightly longer (e.g., 1 1/2 hour) activity, similar to the pre-school activity.  The presentation includes the history of rockets, including rockets developed by the early Chinese, Dr. Goddard, Dr. von Braun, and Mr. Korolev.
For middle school science camp, the program may be expanded to three hours, with one hour each day.  The first day may include a presentation and construction of launchers/test stands.  The thirty minute presentation addresses the history of rockets, videos, Galileo's gravity hypothesis, Newton’s 2nd law, design parameters, the scientific method, how to build a soda straw rocket, how to build a launcher/test stand, and how to conduct tests.  Following questions on the presentation the students may build launchers/test stands.  The total cost of materials for a launcher, wind tunnel test stand, and a thrust test stand is about $100.  Assembly of the launcher/test stands requires that the students pay attention to detail, to build equipment with minimal pressure leaks.
In the second day, the middle school students may build their soda straw rockets, conduct static thrust tests, and conduct wind tunnel tests.  The students may conduct static thrust tests by measuring the force (~ 1 pound) in restraining a pressurized rocket.  A pressure regulator is included in the static thrust tests to provide nearly constant thrust during blow down.  Following static thrust tests, the students may conduct wind tunnel tests in a inch vertical exit pipe.  Each soda straw rocket is suspended nose down into a vertical pipe and the gauge pressure is noted when the soda straw rocket first rises from the pipe (drag = weight).  This provides an estimate of the flight dynamic pressure and drag coefficient.  If funds are available, a low cost, kid-friendly, rugged digital movie camera is useful for data analysis. 
The third day may begin with a demonstration of the flight trajectories of different types of rockets (e.g., rockets with canards, wings, different size tails).  The students then conduct flight tests of their rockets to determine the maximum range.  Again, a digital movie camera is useful, but not required, for flight data analysis.  Following flight tests and if additional time is available, the students may return to the classroom to perform calculations of predicted thrust, dynamic pressure, and drag coefficient.  Students can also compare predicted results with the test data and present posters of their results.  Prizes may be awarded to the students based on the quality of their presentations and the flight performance of their rockets.
In summary, a design, build, and fly program based on a small air rocket is a cost effective approach to aerospace outreach.  As an aerospace outreach program to students and their teachers, it is educational, fun, safe, and low cost.

Georgia Tech Science Camp for Middle School Girls



Click here to download STEM Education Project: Soda Straw Rocket Science Design, Build, and Fly Competition

Missile Design, Development, and System Engineering