Learning More than Aerospace Science from a Rocket Project at Hartford Public High School

Learning More than Aerospace Science from a Rocket Project at Hartford Public High School

HPHS Nursing Academy freshmen experienced sun, fun, and teamwork, while watching the results of careful work and preparation of their rockets, as they sent them into a warm, blue Autumn sky.

In conjunction with the RISE network, several 9th-grade team teachers at Hartford Public High School tailored civil rights-based lessons to their own disciplines; first-year science teacher Phil McArdle chose to base his on the hit movie Hidden Figures, adding the bonus of a “barn find” of hundreds of dusty old poly-bagged rocket kits.

“To me, it was a natural. Hidden Figures is such a compelling story especially for our students – women of color, working as mathematicians, for something as important as the Space Race, in the Jim Crow south no less – so uplifting, inspirational, really captures the imagination.”

The movie also served as a great intro into space technology then and now: satellites for weather, GPS, the military, scientific discovery, space shuttle successes and tragedies, what happens to the human body in space. Many kids who initially expressed lack of interest were surprised to discover something that grabbed their imagination, and they were able – in small groups – to do their own poster presentations on a wide variety of subjects.

“It’s always great when a teacher learns something,” McArdle continued, “Along the way I discovered the story of Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz: astronaut tied for the record for most space flights, flew the Space Shuttle, helped build the International Space Station, inventor and engineer, now CEO of AdAstra Rockets and designer of a radical rocket engine that could get us to Mars if we decide to go and, wait for it, graduate of Hartford Public High School. Class of 1969, ELL student, from Costa Rica. Our students couldn’t believe it when he offered to do a Q&A videoconference with the school at some point.”

“Back to our model rockets – if done right, they’ll fly at hundreds of miles an hour and rise to over a thousand feet – starting with what looks like a random bag of junk, cardboard and plastic bits and tubes. It was great watching students’ pride and enthusiasm grow as the rockets started looking more and more like… rockets… There were times I hated school but I always liked building things… as a kid I was a science nerd and got into rockets for a couple of years, but wasn’t sure if today, what with video games and smart phones, my classes would get as much out of it as I did. But I think the video shows I had nothing to worry about!”

Some students who excelled in one aspect of the assembly process could earn extra credit for helping classmates, or when launch day came, serve as launch control, range safety or recovery teams. Faculty who donated spray paint were rewarded by colors named in their honor: Lombardo Lime, Yackel Yellow, Frazier Fuchsia, Tirillo Tangerine, and a select crew of responsible students were allowed to “shoot” paint, weather permitting. Once the base coat was complete, all classes had the opportunity to further personalize their creations. Soon, students would be able to see their handiwork actually fly but more importantly, flights were real-world demonstrations of many subjects students covered earlier in the year: teamwork and cooperation, care and precision in assembly, use of a basic electrical circuit to trigger a chemical reaction, converting chemical energy to kinetic energy, how a fluid – the atmosphere – affects a rocket’s ascent and parachute recovery, even the fact that the sun’s heat reached us via radiation, or the breezes were caused by convection.

On launch day, things couldn’t have gone better; from the weather, to the efforts of the teams, to over 30 successful flights, with absolutely no mishaps. McArdle relates, “Nothing but kids working together, playing their parts, knowing their jobs. Just positive vibes the whole day. So after, I really wanted to do a video for the kids since they’d all done such a great job, and when I looked around my house I realized the junk left over from building the launcher made me look a little crazy, so I figured an overblown action-movie trailer might do the trick.”

Written by HPHS Science Teacher Phil McArdle.

For more information, contact:
Anastasia DiFedele-DuttonMastery-Based Learning, Teacher in Residence

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