Category: outreach

Sending bottle rockets to new heights (of learning)

My Twitter streams crossed this morning and before I even got to work, a blog post about kids, STEM, learning science, teaching science and rockets was practically spilling out of my head.

It started with a tweet from @physorg_com (h/t to @andrewteacher and @fnoschese) about this column “Don’t show, don’t tell? Trade-off between direct instruction and independent exploration” The researchers gave pre-schoolers a new toy with varying amounts of instruction and then watched what they did with the toy. The kids who were shown how one part of the toy worked could replicate that action, usually, but didn’t find all the other cool stuff the toy did. Kids who didn’t receive explicit instruction figured out much more about the toy. It’s a nice article – have a look if you have minute or two.

The article reminded me of my own experiences with the PhET physics simulations and some research the PhET developers have done (damn, can’t find the ref but I’m sure Wendy would be happy to point you in the right direction). The least effective way to use the sims is to give students a recipe (“Do this. Now click here. Measure this. Now do this. Now this….”) Better but still not terrific is just letting the students play with the sim (“Here’s a cool sim. Play for a while and see what happens.”) The most effective way to use the sims, in their studies anyway, is to give the students a goal or challenge (“Make the light bulb shine the brightest!“)

The other crossing Twitter stream started with @mrsebiology

The ensuing conversation with her and @irasocol reminded me of how I throttled up our UBC Summer Camp bottle rocket activity so it was much more than just something to fill the kids’ time.

Image by richpt on flicker (CC)

Bottle rockets are a popular activity with kids and families. My friends at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre run Saturn 5 Saturdays where families bring a 2-litre pop bottle and build and launch their rockets. [Update 30 June: the next Saturn 5 Saturday is July 16, 11am – 2 pm. Thx @AskAnAstronomer] The rockets blast into the air, the kids (or leaders!) get soaked. They chase the rockets as they plummet back to the ground. It’s great fun.

But suppose you have the time, manpower and goal to make the activity educational, not just entertaining.  The recipe method (“Build the rocket like this: fins, nose cone, give it a name, now stand back as I launch it. Wheee!”) is fun, yes, quick, yes. Educational, not so much.  There are two ways we turned our rocket activity into a learning experience:

1. A rocket science experiment: What makes the rocket go highest?

How much water do you put in the rocket? More fuel = higher launch, you’d think. And how much pressure is best? Again, bigger is better, right? We made one set of tokens that read “low pressure”, “medium pressure” and “high pressure”. A second set has “empty”, “1/3 full”, “2/3 full”, “full”. One by one, the rocketeers pick one of each, setting the parameters for their launch.

After the launch, the group will decide if it was  a good one. Once, we tried using inclinometers to measure the maximum height of the rocket but that was waaaay too messy and confusing.  Instead, before they start launching, I ask them for 3 adjectives to describe bad, okay and great rocket launches. The group decides on words like “lame!”, “ok”, and “awesome!” Their rockets, their results, their words.

Then it’s onto to sending the rockets skyward on a ribbon of water.  After each one, we record the result in the matching cell in our results table:

low pressure medium pressure high pressure
1/3 full awesome!
2/3 full
full lame!

As the Table gets filled in, we start making predictions and then testing them.  It’s pretty funny to watch the full, low pressure rocket. The rocketeer and the rest of the group know what’s going to happen — when you pull the release on the launcher, you hear a tiny “pop” and the rocket falls over. It’s no surprise that the higher the pressure, the higher the rocket goes. But it is surprising that the 1/3 full rockets go the highest. There’s an interesting compromise being having lots of fuel and getting that fuel off the launch pad. The thrill of discovery is pretty cool.

And none of that occurs in the recipe method where the leader takes the rocket from the rocketeer, fills it 1/3 full (we already know that’s the best volume, you see), and then launches it. Don’t tell them the answer. Perhaps, don’t even shepherd them to the solution. Instead, provide them with tools and feedback so they find their own way. (Oh geez, that was the thread on physlrner this morning in response to this interesting “Socrates = Border collie” post.)

2. Add a parachu–, er, safe return system

After watching that many rocket launches, some kids start to get bored. You’re outside so let them go off and play tag or hide-n-seek for a while. But some rocketeers are aching to launch again. And again. And again. So turn up the challenge.

I usually bring out a box of “stuff”: cardboard, file folders, string, tape, plastic bags, elastics, etc. and tell the kids they can launch again but only after they’ve added a parachute to get their rocket safely back to Earth. They usually form small groups by themselves – two head are better than one. @mrsebiology tweeted back “the parachute option is part of the ‘final exam’ challenge.”

This morning, though, I had a great conversation with @irasocol about this added challenge. Perhaps saying “parachute” gives too much away and directs them too much. Who knows what they might think up — the space shuttle is a glider, right? Ira tweeted

Yes, I--, er, my son, has this amazing Lego space shuttle set.

Which got me thinking, in the real world, we don’t care about the rocket, just the astronauts. The next time I run one of these rocket activities, here’s what I’m going to do: Give each kid a Lego mini-figure and challenge them to get the astronaut safely back to the ground. Capsule with parachute? Sure. Glider strapped to the side of the rocket? You betcha. Another idea I can’t even imagine? Absolutely!

There you have it, some ideas on how to throttle up your bottle rocket activity into an opportunity to engage in science, problem solving, engineering. Oh, it’s still fun. But now, so much more.

Do you have your own ways to send this activity to new heights? Please add a comment and share them with us!

Persian New Year

Ali Narimani

Ali Narimani is a astronomy graduate student at UBC. Ali facilitates the labs we run in our introductory “Astro 101” course. While developing an activity about the motion of the Sun across the sky, we were trying to figure out why students should care about predicting the equinox. Ali excitedly said, “…because of Persian New Year!” He’s a great TA who cares about helping students learn and about his Persian culture. He emailed this story of Persian New Year to all the astronomers in our Department on Sunday, March 20, 2010, the day of the Vernal Equinox. With his permission, I’m posting it here.

[Update March 19, 2012: This post was originally published March 20, 2010. In 2012, equinox occurs on March 20 at 05:14 UT]

Persian New Year is celebrated at spring equinox of the northern hemisphere. Today at 4:20pm, we will start our new year which is also the first year of a new decade. Our new year does not start at a certain time of the day each year, but we should tune ourselves for the moment of equinox. (which is on March 20th at around 4:20pm, this year)


Traditionally, member of the family sit around a table called “Haft-Sin”, meaning “Seven S”, some minutes before the start of the new year and pray for a healthy, wealthy, and happy year. The table is called Seven-S because there should be 7 different objects on the table starting with the consonant S:

  1. Sprouts (Sabzeh) : is a symbol of *rebirth*
  2. Apple (Sib) : is a symbol of *beauty*
  3. Garlic (Sir) : is a symbol of *health*
  4. Coin (Sekke) : is a symbol of *wealth*
  5. Silverberry (Senjed) , is a symbol of* love*
  6. Vinegar (Serke) : is a symbol of age and *patience *
  7. A very Sophisticated Persian Cuisine (Samanou)

I have attached a picture of this table:

The table called "Haft-Sin", meaning "Seven S"

Right after the new year time, the usual part of celebration is hug and kiss, and the most fun part for the kids is to receive their new year gifts. New year holiday lasts for 13 days and during this period members of the big family (including all Aunts & Uncles) go to each other’s place for a visit. Younger members should visit elders first. The fun part of these short visits is that everyone wears nice new clothes, and again the kids receive some gift from their aunts and uncles. (the definition of Kid is a little vague in here since my grandmother still likes to give some “new year money”, kept in Quran for a couple of days for holiness, to my 65 year old father as new year gift).


I have attached two traditional Persian dances:


Ali Narimani
Department of Astronomy and Physics
University of British Columbia

Galileoscope eyepieces

Galileoscope co-designer Stephen Pompea peers through his creation. (Dean Coppola)

“I put my Galileoscope together. How do I use all these eyepieces?”

That’s a question I get all the time. There are three different eyepieces depending on how you assemble the components:

There are three eyepieces for the Galileoscope depending on how you assemble the components.
Creative Commons License Galileoscope eyepieces photo-illustration by Peter Newbury is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

The easiest way to use your Galileoscope is with eyepiece A. It gives a fairly widest field-of-view (you can see the largest region of the sky) with a 25x magnification. This is the combination I recommend to new users, parents and kids, and school groups. With this eyepiece, you can easily see the craters and shadows on the Moon and the moons of Jupiter.

The combination A+B+D gives an eyepiece with 50x magnification because B+D create a Barlow lens that doubles the magnification. The increase in magnification comes at a cost: a much smaller field-of-view and fainter image. It is almost impossible to use this 50x combination without a tripod (which the designers anticipated by building a nut into the bottom of the Galileoscope that fits any standard camera tripod.) If you have a tripod and a clear, dark skies, you can see the rings of Saturn. Yes, the rings of Saturn! And that’s magical.

Finally, there is a special lens combination included for historical (and educational) reasons. You see, the Galileoscope was designed as a cornerstone project of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009). That celebration marked the 400th anniversary of Galileo using his telescope to observe the Moon, Venus and, in 1610, the moons of Jupiter. The special “Galileo eyepiece” C+D mimics the view Galileo had, with a meager 17x magnification over a tiny field-of-view. The image appears right-side-up, though, unlike the 25x and 50x combinations which invert the image as most refracting telescopes do.

With all these eyepieces and magnifications, I still recommend the simplest one, just the 25x. In fact, when I’m doing “sidewalk astronomy” I keep the Barlow lenses in my pocket and pull them out only with the more advanced telescope users. Going from naked-eye to 25x already opens up a Universe of wonders.

Parents, teachers, sidewalk astronomers: The Galileoscope design team has put together a great collection of resources. You can order Galileoscopes directly from them, from Learning Encounters or check your local telescope store.

I’m really interested in learning to take pictures through my Galileoscope. If you’ve taken some good ones and have any tips, I hope you’ll share them below.