physics class rockets


Physics majors take studies ‘sky high’


Oct. 22, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Slippery Rock University physics majors were sky high this week when they watched model rockets they had constructed successfully launch as part of a class exercise on velocity, gravity and altitude.

Arlene Ford, assistant professor of physics and pre-engineering, required freshmen in "General Physics Lab" to build a rocket from scratch and launch them to apply physics principals to a theoretical view of real rocket flight.

"I wanted them to have an experience where they could design something, build something and have some fun," Ford said. "Why do something so mundane in lab all the time?"

With a "five, four, three, two, one" countdown and protractor guns to measure altitude, students calculated that the rockets reached 1,000 feet or higher There was no fall out except for a few puffs of smoke, several "cools," "whoa's" and one, "I see the engine falling." Recovery teams picked up debris from the launch zone on the soccer field at the McFarland Recreational Sports Complex.

"I did fire one off. We named it 'Slippery Rocket,' and it did very well," said Brianne Wilson, a physics and pre-engineering major from Pittsburgh. "By standing a designated distance away from the launch pad - takeoff zone ¬- and aiming a protractor gun to where you see the rocket begin to fall back to earth, you can then use the given calculations to solve the Pythagorean theorem equation."

Aside from grounding students in introductory physics concepts, Ford said she hopes students feel inspired to begin thinking that they can do anything, even becoming the next gallery explorers. And, most agreed, it was more fun than sitting in class.

"It's entertaining. It's fun, and it's a good way to learn and get students interested," said Owen Boring, a physics major from Derry.

Ford said she challenged students to design, build and spray paint their rockets. Students used gold, green and red for the rockets' shafts, with red and blue stripes and tips of silver.

"It was not a piece of cake," Ford said. "They didn't have any familiar design, and the whole process sparked something in their minds. They researched kits, watched YouTube videos, came into the lab and got to work."

Testing the rockets enabled students to determine if their rockets flew in a manner consistent with their predictions, Ford said.

Students used balances to find the mass and calculate velocities and movements based on three engines of different power. They were to determine how much higher a rocket would go with a stronger engine, studying force-per-second thrust.

They measured the height of the rocket flight with help from an ALITRAK device and tape measure. Students will compare their experimental results on flight altitude with those of theory and attempt to explain the difference.

Wilson said she enjoyed the whole process.

"My favorite part of this experiment was the construction of the rockets," she said. "Since they were all different in the way that they were put together, when we discover what rocket did the best in flight, then we can determine what model was most efficient."