If there is one universal truth we have learned doing STEAM projects it is that all kids love rockets. Several years ago I made four rocket launchers for the Kinetics Festival. These launchers are made of pvc pipe and connected to a bicycle pump. They were made to shoot 20 ounce soda bottle rockets which you can fill with various amounts of water before launching. I modified these slightly to accommodate rolled paper rockets for STEAM Club.
NASA has some great educational resources and I based our rocket project from their plans, which you can link to here. The launcher was made of 1/2" pvc so that is what we used to roll the heavy bond paper of the rocket body around to assure a good fit. Their idea to use a CD as a guide to make the nose cone was great. You just traced the outline of a CD, cut it out, then fold in half, then in half again. Tape the edges of the cone then separate to make something looking like an ice cream cone. We found through experimentation that you want to attach this nose cone to the rocket body with hot glue, tape was not enough to keep it from blowing off on the launch pad.
There was a lot of great experimentation to be had in designing and applying fins, they could make a big difference in flight patterns.
There was certainly lots of room for personalized design both functional and decorative.
This is a perfect project for iterative design. Every kid would build a rocket, run outside and try to launch it, then come back inside to modify, go back out and re-launch, and repeat, repeat, repeat. This sort of real life design and test process is invaluable in teaching kids about how innovative design takes place in the real world.
We worked on rockets for a couple meetings. One of our challenges was to try to create a recoverable nose cone. We were hoping we could make a nose cone that would separate after the launch and drift back down to earth with the help of a parachute. This proved much more challenging than we imagined but led to a lot of great experimentation. We used plastic newspaper bags with string as parachutes.
In the last five minutes of the last day of rockets one team finally got a parachute to successfully deploy. Nose cone separation proved elusive, though many very creative designs were tested. The kids would have happily spent the entire year working on rockets but we wanted to move on to some other projects. But it is great to know that it is a universally loved project that leads kids to embrace iterative design by its nature. I plan to use it in the future as an initial project with new groups so we can get to know each other and set a standard for work practices while immersed in an engaging and fun project.
After we had finished rockets I found this great altimeter. You can have students use this device by standing a set distance from the launcher and following the trajectory of the rocket to find the altitude it reaches at its apex. Then you can compete for height and more accurately track the success of modifications.