Rockets, planes, blimps help youngsters study physics

What a blast

Posted: Wednesday, May 26, 2004

A group of students stood atop a hill behind their school, flying paper airplanes unlike any common design. Made of a straw attached to two or three paper rings, the planes soared on the day's slight breeze, hovering their way to the bottom of the hill.

"What we're doing is trying to see if it will go long distances and see which one goes the furthest," explained Zoya Hanson, one of the kids flying the planes last week.

"(The wind) creates high pressure and low pressure," explained Logan Paul.

Courtney Stroh added, "High pressure goes on the bottom, and low pressure on the top."

"That's Bernoulli's principle," noted Hannah Tauriainen.

The airplanes' flight is nothing remarkable these days. It's the students' grasp of physics that stands out they're in second grade.

The paper airplane experiment was just one in a series of physics- and flight-related "centers" students in M.K. Knudsen and Nancy Lafferty's second-grade Sears Elementary School classes visited May 17. The students had spent the past several months studying everything from NASA's Mars rovers to Newton's Laws of Motion, and the outdoor event was the hands-on culmination of those efforts.

While some students tested the paper airplanes, others made spinning blimps, dropping strips of scrap paper from the top of a slide to see which flew the best. Others tested friction and gravity on the slide.

Meanwhile, yet more students were exploring air pressure and rockets. Some let go of long, thin balloons, watching them shoot around the playground releasing air. At one station, kids shot off "stomp rockets" from the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska and at another, science specialist Rick Frederic helped students launch their own pop bottle rockets.

While the Sears playground reverberated with shouts of children at all the stations, the pop bottle rockets were the biggest hit of the day. Students had created the rockets from plastic, 2-liter bottles, attaching plastic parachutes hidden beneath cone-shaped paper tips. The rockets were half-filled with water and placed on a PVC pipe set-up, into which Frederic loaded compressed air. Children pulled a string, and the rockets shot into the air, many hovering their way to the ground as the parachutes deployed.

"Today is the second time," Frederic said, explaining students already tried their rockets once in the school's hallways. "There were a lot of malfunctions. Today is good."

Knudsen said students had taken the lessons from the first tries to improve their rocket designs, and many of the upgrades met with success.

For example, second-grader Tyler Brown's rocket parachute didn't deploy on the first mission, as some duct tape held the plastic shopping bag to the pop bottle. Brown said he altered his design to not only free the parachute from blockage, but also switched to just the end of a grocery bag for the parachute, which he attached with lighter kite strings. The result: Brown's rocket glided to the ground with slow ease, air successfully filling the 'chute.

Knudsen said the students excelled at their science studies throughout the semester, constantly keeping teachers on their toes.

"We have to have a lot of Internet time, looking up sources, trying to figure out how to explain it to this age," she said. "But some of the discussions they had ... . They understand."

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