Rocket Science

By Steven Fowler, July 12, 2009

Grade Level

  • PreK-1


  • Architecture

Lesson Time

180 minutes for classroom activities and 90 minutes for homework (All times may be modified at the instructor’s discretion.)


Students will design a rocket using plastic soft drink bottles.  The rockets will be launched using an inexpensive air compressor or bicycle pump.  This could be used in a number of units, but is perhaps best used in Physical Science or Physics when learning about motion.  For instance, Newton’s laws of motion can be observed and explained with this activity.  The challenge is to design a rocket that will fly the furthest horizontal distance.

National Standards

Physical Science

Standard 10. Understands forces and motion
4. Understands effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on an object’s motion (e.g., if more than one force acts on an object along a straight line, then the forces will reinforce or cancel one another, depending on their direction and magnitude; unbalanced forces, such as friction, will cause changes in the speed or direction on an object’s motion)
5. Knows that an object that is not being subjected to a force will continue to move at a constant speed and in a straight line
8. Knows that laws of motion can be used to determine the effects of forces on the motion of objects (e.g., objects change their motion only when a net force is applied; whenever one object exerts force on another, a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction is exerted on the first object; the magnitude of the change in motion can be calculated using the relationship F=ma, which is independent of the nature of the force)


Students will:
  • describe Newton’s laws of motion and identify their influences on the rocket launch
  • identify the basic principles of aeronautic design that would enhance the horizontal flight of their rocket design
  • describe how their rocket design minimized air resistance
  • identify how their rocket design maximized stability
  • identify how their rocket design minimized the weight of the rocket without losing stability or air pressure



  • 2 L plastic soft drink bottles
  • low temperature glue gun
  • small air compressor or bicycle pump
  • launching pad
  • safety glasses
  • manila folders
  • scissors
  • water
  • football field or any open area
  • a current textbook
  • internet access

(Note: Kits are available for teachers at various price points; for example this kit is made by PITSCO Education and costs $285:


No vocabulary beyond those used to describe motion are required.  A complete vocabulary of motion is beyond the scope of this design project.


The following is based on “Notes on Design Based Learning” by Meredith Davis.

1. Review the challenge: Students are asked to design a rocket using soft drink bottles.  The rockets will be launched using air pressure.  The goal is to maximize horizontal distance.

2. Investigate the problem or opportunity: Students will be assigned to read the chapter on motion in their textbook.  Most textbooks include a chapter or section on flight.  Students should list the forces that act upon a rocket when launched and in flight.  They should be able to differentiate when these forces are applied to the rocket.  Students should not overlook the importance of understanding their target goals.  The Internet can replace the textbook.

3. Frame or reframe the problem: Now that the students have a background on the problem and the target group, they need basic information to create the criteria for a rocket.  A class discussion will follow.  The instructor needs to direct the discussion towards the need to maximize horizontal distance.

4. Generate possible solutions: Students will be divided into groups of two.  The groups will be asked to brainstorm possible solutions.  A physical copy of the ideas must be produced at the end of the session.  This could be a model, sketch, or writing.

5. Edit and develop ideas: Following feedback from the instructor, students should choose the best idea(s) and develop prototypes.  Again, these could be presented in various forms such as a physical model (i.e. a rocket), a drawing or sketch for development, or writings.  Some visual model should be encouraged, for maximum effect, by the instructor.

6. Share and critique: Groups will have an initial launch of their prototype.  Everyone should wear safety glasses at the launch site even if they are only a spectator.  Measurements will be made of rocket mass and the horizontal distances achieved.  Specific design characteristics should be noted.  Other groups must give feedback to the group that is launching about the design of their rocket either orally, in written form, or through a model of their own.  This should be emphasized by the instructor as one of the most important steps.  Encourage constructive criticism at every step.  This could be done during the fifth step as well.  Informal criticism should take place at the launch site, but formal criticism should occur in the classroom.  What design characteristics led to the longest distances?  How are they best applied to each group’s rocket?

7. Finalize the solution: Groups should reconvene and consider the criticism from the other groups and finalize their designs.

8. Articulate the solution: Groups will present their final ideas at the launch site and then make their official launch.  Judging will be based solely on the horizontal distance achieved.  Discussions will follow each launch to maximize the design process.  Multiple launches could take place to average the trials.  Or teachers could score the best of their three launches.  This could be individualized by the instructor. 


Students will be assessed by the distance of the flight.  The lesson is self differentiating.  Advanced designs that are unable to be made, but only designed by drawing or model could be assessed individually based on specific teacher objectives.

Enrichment Extension Activities

Students could launch rockets vertically and triangulate to calculate the height of the rocket.

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