Rockets and Quadratics

When I was a physical science teacher, one of my students’ favorite activities was to use water bottle rockets to explore Newton’s Laws of Motion. Eighth grade algebra teacher Nancy Pierson and I recently hauled my old launcher out of storage and designed a three-day lesson that combined rocketry, quadratics, and real world data.

Utilizing the scientific concepts of action-reaction and aerodynamics, students constructed and launched a simple 2-liter water bottle rocket. By measuring the time of ascent and descent (and ignoring air resistance), they were able to calculate the height and velocity of their rocket using a quadratic function. Although we were not able (as originally intended) to film the flights in order to more accurately determine values for time, we did compare field data to projected calculations made using free rocket simulation software.
Rockets Away Rockets Away pwoessner

Regardless of how well their rockets flew, by combining math, science, and technology, the students developed a greater appreciation for quadratics in the real world and came to realize that there is more to learning that simply substituting values into an equation. The formulas and functions will fade from memory, but hopefully the experience of working with authentic data (and having a bit of fun) will stay with them for a lifetime.