Prototyping Paper Rockets

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Students will be able to build a model rocket with minimal instruction so that by working through building multiple prototypes they will learn the principles of rocketry.

Big Idea

Show them how to build a simple paper rocket and step back.

NGSS Background

This lesson is based on California's Middle School Integrated Model of NGSS.

NGSS Performance Expectation (PE): (MS-ETS1-4) Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.

Science and Engineering Practice (SEP) (1) Asking Questions and Defining Problems, (4) Analyzing and Interpreting Data.

Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI): ETS1.B Developing Possible Solutions - A solution need to be tested, and then modified on the basis of test results, in order to improve it.

Crosscutting Concepts (CCC) Influence of Science, Engineering, and Technology on Society and the Natural World - The uses of technologies and any limitations on their use are driven by individual or societal needs, desires, and values; by the findings of scientific research; and by differences in such factors as climate, natural resources, and economic conditions. 

This lesson allows my students to build a rocket, launch it, and immediately make design changes. Initially they are informally testing their rocket's altitude by tapping into their natural desire to make the rocket go higher. After they have selected their winning design, they work as a group to formally measure their rocket's altitude.

I keep this activity light and fun, without a lot of formal instruction. Through a process of trial and error the students improve on their design. Ultimately, they typically arrive at a design that follows formal rocket design principles.

This lesson is designed to give my students an authentic experience with the engineering design process.

Building a Rocket

10 minutes

The lesson provides a basic foundation to building a paper rocket. Students are free to redesign subsequent rockets to their parameters.


  1. 1/2 inch PVC pipe (schedule 40, 12" long)
  2. construction paper (24"x24"
  3. scissors
  4. clear tape (one role/group)

Launch Rig

The launching devise is an air launcher from It's a Blast. It retails for about $85 and requires an air compressor to operate. It has a trigger that forces compressed air up through the launch tube, then reseals the chamber. Additional launches only require another pull of the trigger. With an air compressor attached the entire process in automated and allows multiple launches in quick succession. I have two launchers that I position right outside my classroom. There is never a line and the kids are free to design and launch rockets to their heart's content.








Building a Rocket

  1. Cut a long strip of construction paper (9"x3").
  2. Wrap this strip lengthwise around the 1/2 inch PVC pipe and completely tape the seam (rockettube).
  3. Remove the PVC pipe.
  4. Cut an ugly circle about 6" in diameter.
  5. Make a single cut in the circle that resembles a radius from the edge to the center (looks like a Pacman).
  6. Bring the upper lip of Pacman over the bottom lip so as to create a cone.
  7. Size the cone to fit over the rocket tube (nose cone).
  8. Secure the nose cone over one end of the rocket tube with tape.
  9. Crumble some scrap paper and insert it into the bottom end of the tube.
  10. Use the PVC pipe to ream the scrap paper into the nose cone (improves stability).
  11. Cut triangles to desired size (fins).
  12. Secure the fins with tape.
  13. Launch!
  14. Repeat design with desired changes. 

Prototyping a Rocket

120 minutes

I allow each student to work individually to design and build their own rockets over two class periods. As they experiment with different designs it's interesting how the rockets start to take on similarities. Successful rockets tend to be tall (40cm) with small, rigid fins placed toward the rear of the rocket. 

Example Launch

On the third class day, I place the students in groups (nine total groups) and each group decides which rocket will represent their group. Each group builds a NASA Altitude Tracker with yarn, washer, and a brad. I pass out an Altitude Tracking document to each group. We exit the room and formally launch each chosen rocket and measure the altitude of each one. To keep all the groups engaged they have to measure the altitude of all rockets and compute an average.

Student Work