Rockets: Research and Design Proposals

44 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


Students will be able to utilize the design process to design a solution to a problem based on Newton's Laws.

Big Idea

It's not rocket science.....oh wait, it is! Students use the design process to create a water powered bottle rocket that can launch hundreds of feet into the air!

Introduction and Connection to the NGSS and Common Core

This lesson takes students through the entire design process including research, sketching, decision matrices, designing solutions, 3-dimensional modeling, constructing, testing, and revising design solutions.  Completion of this lesson will take multiple days.

This lesson is designed to address the following NGSS and Common Core Standards:

MS-PS2-1      Apply Newton’s Third Law to design a solution to a problem involving the motion of two colliding objects.

MS-PS2-2      Plan an investigation to provide evidence that the change in an object’s motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.9  Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.9  Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Scientific and Engineering Practices:

2 Developing and Using Models     Students should be able to develop and/or use a model to predict and/or describe phenomena. 

6  Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions  

  • Apply scientific reasoning to show why the data or evidence is adequate for the explanation or conclusion.
  • Apply scientific ideas or principles to design, construct, and/or test a design of an object, tool, process or system.
  • Undertake a design project, engaging in the design cycle, to construct and/or implement a solution that meets specific design criteria and constraints.
  • Optimize performance of a design by prioritizing criteria, making tradeoffs, testing, revising, and re-testing. 

7 Engaging in Argument from Evidence    Construct, use, and/or present an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon or a solution to a problem. 

Crosscutting Concepts:

Systems and System Models: A system is an organized group of related objects or components; models can be used for understanding and predicting the behavior of systems.

Structure and Function  Structures can be designed to serve particular functions by taking into account properties of different materials, and how materials can be shaped and used.

Connecting to the Essential Question: What are you supposed to learn today?

5 minutes

In my classroom, I begin each class by asking the question, "What are you going to learn today?". Students respond by referencing the Essential Question, "How can I demonstrate science and engineering literacy?". This EQ is located on their Literacy Unit Plan as well as on the front board of my classroom.

Then, I have students rank themselves on each of the skills included in the unit plan. Students rank themselves on a scale of 1 to 4 (4 being mastery). Students will continue to update these scores over the course of the unit. I emphasize that it is ok not to be at a "4". Learning is about growth! We will use this starting point to track the growth in their learning.

Notice in the student work below, that the student updates his scores over the course of the unit as he grows in his level of mastery.

I explain that the focus of the lessons over the next days are Skills 2 and 3. Students will be using the design process to design and launch a rocket as well as create a 3 dimensional model of their rocket in an Auto-Cad/engineering software.

Design Brief and Research

60 minutes

I explain that scientists and engineers always research before developing a design solution. Their solutions are based on evidence and research; they do not just 'guess', their ideas are based on mathematical and scientific evidence. I further explain that the previous lessons have provided us a base of information that we can use to create a design solution to design a water powered bottle rocket.  

It is important for students to have a vision of what the final product may look like - especially how the launch system works. Without this, they will develop ideas that will not fit the constraints of the launcher. I show the students the launcher. (Here is where I purchased my launcher. Don't have money in your budget? This is a great project to write a grant for! It's STEM, it's reusable, and can be used by a lot of students - all criteria many grants look for!)

Then, I show the students that we will be using 2 two-liter bottles.  One of these bottles will remain full and the other will be cut.  I point on my example rockets where the full and half two liter bottles are. Next, I attach a rocket to the launcher so they can see how the system works.  Tip:  After this initial day, remove all example rockets from the room. I find that that leaving these out can hamper creativity. Students end up picking and choosing characteristics of each rocket instead of doing their won research or coming up with their own ideas.

I emphasize that the full bottle must be a two liter bottle; if they use a one liter or 3 liter bottle, it will not fit on the launcher. Then, I show my students a video of a rocket launch from a previous year. Here is one you can use if you have never done this before:

I say something like,

"In the real world, engineers have clients that come to them with problems.  They must develop a solution that meets the constraints the client provides.  Moreover, engineers don't just get to build whatever they want.  They must provide their clients with a "Design Brief" or "Design Proposal".  You will have to research and write a "Design Brief" to present to your client (me).  Your challenge is to design a water powered bottle rocket that will fly the highest distance in the air."

Then, I go through what must be included in the brief.  I emphasize that when writing a design brief there are important headings that must be included.

Rocket Design Brief

Client:  Who are you designing the rocket for?

Designer (s):  Who are the designers of your rocket?

Problem Statement:  Describe what your challenge was.

Constraints:  What were the rules guidelines that you had to follow?

Deliverables:  What could you produce or “turn in” to your client to show your work and success in this project?

Design Statement: 

Heading 1:  Explain how the rocket in general will be able to take off into the air.  In your explanation, you must connect to your scientific reasoning.  This includes how Newton’s 1st Law, Newton’s 2nd Law, and Newton’s 3rd Law allow the rocket to take off. 

Heading 2:  Explain the reasoning behind your decision in how you designed your rocket in considering the following four aspects:

  • Stability
  • Overall Mass
  • Fins
  • Nose Cone

In your explanation, you must connect to your scientific reasoning.  This includes discussing things such as friction, air drag, center mass, center pressure, surface area of the rear of the rocket, and Newton’s 2nd Law. 

You must provide SPECIFIC examples from each of the resources provided (readings, videos, and notes) at some point in your 2 (or more) paragraph design statement. 

Each source is going to be given a number.  The key is as follows:

  1.  Design Considerations for Water-Bottle Rocket Reading
  2.  Rocket Reading from class
  3.  Website “How to Build a "Water-Powered Bottle Rocket"

You must cite the reference you are connecting to by writing the corresponding number in parenthesis at the end of each sentence that refers to one of these sources.

***I worked with the Language Arts teacher on my team with this.  We simply cited our sources with a number in parenthesis, for example (2), and then they learned proper citation in their LA class and replaced the numbers with appropriate citations and created a works cited page.

I provide students with graphic organizers to help them organize their research.  These graphic organizers are explained below.

Heading #1 Graphic Organizer:  “Three Square”

In each box, write the evidence and connections that you find as you research.  Any information that you come across that you want to include in your final response should be written in this graphic organizer.  The graphic organizer DOES NOT have to be written in complete sentences.

In addition, be sure to include the “Reference #” with each piece of information you record.  I have provided one example in the box for Newton’s 1st Law.  VERY IMPORTANT:  When taking notes, write what you want to say in your own words, don’t just copy word for word from your reading, video, or notes.  If you take the time now during your planning to write in your own words, not only will you understand the material better, but you will avoid plagiarizing later when you write your actual response.

Follow the same steps as you followed on the Paragraph #1 “Three Square” Graphic Organizer.  Your focus for this organizer is:

Heading #2 Graphic Organizer:  “Four Square”

Explain the reasoning behind your decision in how you designed your rocket in considering the following four aspects:  Stability, Overall Mass, Fins, Nose Cone.

In your explanation, you must connect to your scientific reasoning.  This includes discussing things such as friction, air drag, center mass, center pressure, surface area of the rear of the rocket, and Newton’s 2nd Law. 

Taking effective notes and citing sources is challenging for middle school students. In order for them to effectively fill out these organizers, I model how to enter research for them. Here is a video that I created as a resource for students to look back at when researching. If you are interested in what the modeling process might look like, you could watch this video.

This is a lot to take in all at once. I actually used Camtasia a couple years ago to capture some of the important points I make in this introduction to the design brief and post it on my website. This way, students can return to it and hear the directions and watch the modeling again if they need to. The video is 16 minutes long, but if you wanted to see what I did, feel free to take a look at the Rocket Design Brief Introduction Video.  This is a video is directed towards students.

Sketches and Decision Matrices

30 minutes

After researching, I have students take individual time for sketching. Although they will be creating their rockets in small groups, each individual student must create a sketch. We will evaluate multiple design ideas before deciding on a design to build. It is always better to see multiple ideas! 

One important aspect of the sketches that I have them create is that I have them add reasoning to their sketch for each part of their rocket. This is where you can formatively assess if the students are actually applying their research to their design. I ask the students to note their reasoning for the following design decisions on their sketch:

  1. Shape of the nose cone
  2. Shape of the fins
  3. Number of fins
  4. Height of rocket
  5. Weight of rocket
  6. Center of Mass (Where is it? How will you "move" it to that location?)
  7. Center of Pressure (Where is it? How will you "move" it to that location?)

**In my experience, the center of mass and center of pressure are the most important factors in rocket success. However, they are the most challenging to understand and students have a hard time understanding how to design their rockets to effectively for these criteria.

Here is what is important about center mass and pressure:

1.  The rocket must be top heavy. The center of mass should be towards the top of the rocket.  Adding mass to the top in the form of clay inside the nose cone can help with this.

2.  To test if the center mass is in the right place, you can try to balance the finished rocket on two fingers (with the rocket horizontal/length of the rocket parallel to the floor.). The rocket should balance about at the place where the half two liter bottle attaches to the whole two liter bottle.

3.  The center of pressure should be towards the rear of the rocket. The best way to do this is to add surface area to the rear of the rocket. This can be done by placing the fins as close to the bottom of the rocket as possible.

Here is one of the sketches my students created:

Notice that this student has scientific reasoning for all of his design decisions.  Take special note of how the student addresses center mass and center of pressure.

After each student creates their own sketch, students meet in groups to determine which design will go into construction.  The decision matrix is a great way to help students evaluate different design ideas based on criteria. I review the procedure for completing the "Decision Matrix".

  1. Get together with your group of 2 -3 for the rocket design challenge.
  2. The student that represents Design #1 shows the group their sketch and talks about all 7 points of reasoning that they put into their rocket (nose cone, shape of wing, # of wings, height, mass, center of pressure, and center of mass).  The other members of the group do not talk until the Design 1 student is finished with all 7 points.
  3. Group members then ask any needed follow up questions about Designer #1’s design.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 for Designer #2.
  5. If you have three members in your group, repeat steps 2 and 3 for Designer #3.
  6. In the decision matrix on the back of page 2, each member of the group should rank each design (including their own) based on the criteria on the matrix.   This should be completed in silence.  No one in the group is to talk until every group member has ranked every design.
  7. Total the scores for each design to determine the design with the highest score.
  8. As a group, determine the final design that will be constructed next week.  It could be the winning design or the winning design plus specific elements that seemed to be successful of the other designs.

Below is a video of students explaining how they evaluated design ideas and chose a final deign solution.

Writting Design Briefs and Student Work

120 minutes

Over the course of days, students write their design briefs. When they think it's finished, they self-edit by going through the checklist to make sure they have included all of the required information. After self-editing, students schedule a time to conference with me about their papers.  I meet with the students and provide them with feedback on their writing. Students then can make corrections based on my feedback.

You will notice in the student work that they are typed. I chose to have students type these in Google Docs and share them with me as it is a large culminating activity for our "Scientific Literacy" unit. Google Docs also provides me with the ability to provide them with feedback from home that they can resolve while they are writing.

Below are some links to a variety of students' Rocket Design Briefs:

Student #1

Student #2

Student #3

Closure: Self and Peer Editing

15 minutes

Have students swap papers with a partner. Have the partner go through the checklist and "put their finger on it" for each item in the checklist. For quality peer feedback, I find it important for students to actually "put their finger" on the sentence, phrase, or word that meets the checklist requirement.

If they cannot physically put their finger on it, it isn't there! Students then provide feedback to their peers. Students then edit their papers based on the peer feedback. After self-editing, editing based on my feedback, and peer editing, the students have the opportunity to go through the entire writing process as they have to continually go back to their writing and make improvements.