Students Take off with a Heavy Lift Engineering Design Challenge

 In pictures-of-practice

Geoff Bergen, Technology & Engineering Educator at Whisconier Middle School in Brookfield, Connecticut, has been challenging students with unique engineering design activities since 2006. Students have worked on a number of projects. They have designed and constructed a 42-foot long cable-stayed bridge in the back of the school; studied Newton’s Laws of Motion and aerodynamics while racing model Land Speed Record Vehicles; and even designed and constructed several custom electric guitars. Mr. Bergen’s Technology & Engineering program has only become more rigorous and STEM oriented since he became a NASA Endeavor Fellow.

Mr. Bergen created a special new curricular unit and engineering design activity as part of his Endeavor coursework. The unit focuses on physics content while engaging his students in an engineering design challenge. Sixth and seventh grade students take on the challenge of designing a new heavy lift rocket for NASA, over the course of a 30 day rotation. Students must design, construct, test and evaluate a model rocket capable of carrying a raw egg to a minimum altitude of 200 feet and returning it safely to the ground!

The activity begins with students generating a list of what they know about rockets and a list of questions they have about rockets or the design challenge. One question always gets asked, “How do we know how high the rocket goes?” Mr. Bergen displays questions on post-it-notes in a common area in the classroom. In small groups, students consider one of the questions and research its answer on their own. They use online NASA resources and report their findings to the class at the beginning of each class meeting.

S   tudent groups develop a company name and logo which identifies them and their rocket. Mr. Bergen uses the logos to make replica NASA badges for each student group, adding to the realism of the activity. The engineering challenge is broken down into a few mini-challenges to get students working right out of the box. The first is the egg-drop activity. Students use one class period to design/construct their solution and a second class session to test and evaluate the performance of their solution. Students keep a design journal which documents the entire engineering design challenge.

Students design their rocket based on some basic design guidelines and in consultation with Mr. Bergen. Next, they build their rockets from scratch using directions from Mr. Bergen, tutorial videos, and other online resources. Students construct their rockets from simple materials: cardstock, copy paper, cardboard, hot glue, recycled shopping bags, etc. After some decorating and final preparations, launch day arrives.

Students really enjoy seeing their efforts pay off when the rockets launch towards the heavens. The rockets reach varied altitudes, based on the design and construction. Mr. Bergen allows students to use multiple motors to power their rockets which really adds to the challenge of engineering. They learn the fine balance between what is required and what they want to achieve. Using a Launch Altitude Tracker, available from NASA’s Rockets Educator Guide, they calculate the altitude reached by their rocket.

The Heavy Lift Engineering Design Challenge is a successful activity for several reasons. Foremost, students really look forward to coming to Mr. Bergen’s Technology & Engineering Education class. They learn new and challenging physics content while being involved in a hands-on engineering challenge. “It’s been a great addition to the program and I owe it all to my NASA Endeavor experience,” says Mr. Bergen.