Water Rocket Quadratics and Community Building

The water rocket project was done with strong, rising eighth-graders. This was a five-week course designed to teach the traditional Algebra I and II skills associated with quadratics: translations, reflections, function notation, vertex form, standard form, factoring, the quadratic formula, and completing the square. One of the best applications of quadratics is projectile motion. To motivate students, I started the first day of class with inspiring videos of professional water-propelled rockets with cameras breaking altitude records. We discussed how the rockets worked, how powerful they could be and how high they could go, and the science of how they worked. Throughout the unit as we gritted our way through the traditional math skills we needed to learn, we would take breaks to continue working on our water rockets. The unit culminated with an activity where we shot off our rockets, used clinometers to measure the angle from the ground, and used some basic trig to try to find the height of the rocket which we compared to data from an altimeter. Finally, we used the TI-84 and our estimated data points from the flight path to have the calculator model the parabolic flight path—the same parabolas that we had been learning so much about in the unit. The critical thing for student buy-in was the encouragement of student creativity and personalization and the foregrounding of a practical purpose for the methods we were learning. Making the rockets also built community as it gave the students a chance to work together. What color duct tape? What did the rocket say on the side? What if they stuck a bunch of plastic cups on top? What if they tried different fin materials? Students enjoyed the rockets so much that I eventually expanded the activity into a team building activity also where each homeroom built their own rocket and we had a competition for which home room’s rocket was the best. One year we built rockets at Freshmen Connection.

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