Igniting an interest in science
Tupelo High students teach Rankin kids to build model rockets
By Monique Harrison
Nine-year-old Mary Jones had a handle on the inner workings of the model rocket she meticulously worked to decorate with decals and poster paint.
“It works like a firecracker or something,” Jones said, pointing to the foot-long wooden model rocket. “We press this button here and there’s (tension). At first, there’s not enough heat to make it go. But as the heat gets stronger, it moves up, and the rocket blasts off. It’s the heat that does it. Heat makes things move.”
The Rankin Elementary student didn’t learn the physics of heat from a textbook – or even from her teachers.
She learned it instead from Tupelo High School physics students, who helped grade-schoolers build and launch the rockets as part of a project in Sharon Davis’ class. The engineless rockets are launched when students turn a lever at the end of the rocket. Gunpowder-covered, v-shaped wires offer resistance that sparks a fire, launching the wooden rocket an average of about 30 feet. A parachute breaks the fall of the rocket.
Davis had several objectives in mind when she first made the assignment to her 1992 physics students four years ago.
“I really believe you have to fully understand something before you can teach it to someone else,” she said. “This forces students to understand what they are doing.”
Providing role models
And then, there’s the role model factor.
“A lot of my students don’t have younger brothers and sisters, and they haven’t had many opportunities to work with small children,” Davis said. “This gives them that experience. I’m a big believer in interpersonal skills. They see how difficult it is to be in a teaching position, and they adjust to that difficulty, learning to speak on the level of the kids.”
There’s also a somewhat selfish motive behind the project.
“I’ve noticed younger students don’t always have the interest they should in science,” she said. “This is a good opportunity to get them excited. Then, when they get to the high school, I’ll have students in my (chemistry and physics) classes.”
Before teaching youngsters to build and launch the rockets, the teens are required to do their project on their own, putting together the kit, decorating the rockets and then launching them.
The high school students are also required to do a series of calculations designed to predict where the rockets will go and how fast they will travel.
On their launch day, the teens are paired with their grade-school partners, who help them launch the rockets.
“I got to watch him shoot the rocket,” 10-year-old James Kimble said of his high school partner, Phu Nguyen. “I got to help him shoot it.”
After watching Nguyen, Kimble later shot the rocket he worked to build on his own.
To prepare Rankin’s students for their five trips to Tupelo High, third-and-fourth-grade combined teachers Linda Franks and Sue Shepherd taught a unit on basic laws of motion.
“We wanted them to at least have a basic understanding,” Shepherd said. “We’ve been studying the solar system, and so we worked some of Newton’s Laws of Motion into that.”
Connecting through science
Bonds have been formed between the two groups of students.
“My students have brought all kinds of gifts to show how thankful they are,” Shepherd said. “They’ve brought baseball caps, roses – even a Babysitters Club book. There has been an amazing bonding process here.”
Cooperative projects between older students and younger ones is relatively common in Northeast Mississippi.
High school music students often perform for youngsters. In upper-level English classes, students write and illustrate books for younger students. Older students also put on plays, coordinate game days and prepare snacks for smaller children. Some elementary and junior high schools sponsor mentor days, where high school “celebrities” like cheerleaders, student council members and athletes talk to younger students about their experiences.
High-schoolers say they like the idea of working to get younger students interested in science.
“I’ve enjoyed the whole experience,” said 18-year-old Sadie Gardner. “It’s fun to see them doing this because it’s so fun for them. It’s a way for us to connect with younger kids through science. It’s a great project.”
For some of the teens, working with younger children was a learning experience in itself.
“I learned you really have to be patient with them,” said senior Jacqueline Busby. “It’s hard to explain something this complex to children who are so young.”
To help her students explain the rocket project to the third- and fourth-graders, Davis required them to rewrite the directions for elementary students.
“Really, all the children had to do was read the directions,” 15-year-old Loren Edwards said. “We were right there to explain anything they didn’t understand. But they did it all themselves. Unless they needed us to help, we tried to let them do as much as they could.”
The rockets cost about $5 each, with about 40 rockets purchased this year. Money for the project is taken from Tupelo High School’s general science fund.