Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bottle Rockets – An Inquiry Based Culminating Performance Task!

In Ontario we are mandated by the Ministry of Education to evaluate the culminated learning in high school science courses at 30% of the total mark, the other 70% of the mark is earned during the semester. This 30% is made up of a combination of a Culminating Performance Task (CPT) mark and a written final exam. Each school board has the liberty to decide exactly how the 30% will be distributed for each course.

In my school board it has been decided that the CPT mark for grade nine applied science (SNC1P) will be worth 20% and the final exam 10%. This allows the students, who by virtual of enrolling in the course, have self-identified as hands on (kinesthetic) learners to demonstrate what they can do in practical terms rather than in terms of a pencil/paper written exam which is not their strong point. Within these guidelines the teachers are free to design and evaluate a CPT of their choosing.

This semester our CPT was to use the Smarter Science frame work to design, build and launch bottle rockets with the objective of achieving the best possible launch as determined by the height reached by the bottle rocket on lift off.

1. Initiate and Plan (= ENGAGE)

When introducing the project to the students I showed them some previously made rockets as well as some pictures and videos of bottle rockets in action (modelling)। The trick is to give them enough information that they have a clear understanding of what is being asked of them but not so much information that they simply copy what has already been achieved by others.

(A challenge in many science research labs!)

Because the students are so proficient at using the Smarter Science framework to design and plan their inquiries we started out with our pads of sticky notes while we brainstormed the variables inherent to the bottle rocket. Each variable was recorded on a separate sticky note. Our list looked like this:

· Type of empty bottle

· Number of fins

· Size of fins

· Placement of fins on the bottle

· Size of nose cone

· Amount of water put into bottle

There are other variables that could have been on this list but since the students did not think of them we did not write them down. Just like everything else in Smarter Science, this is a student-directed activity, which is why the students are always so engaged!

Other possible variables could be:

· Temperature of the water

· Materials used for the fins and nose cone

· Angle of the nose cone

· Total height

· Volume of nose cone

· Coating of the bottle rocket

· Liquid other than water for the pressure build up at launch

· Type of pump used at the launch

· Amount of pressure built up by the pump prior to the launch

· Weather conditions on day of launch

· Wind direction and velocity on day of launch

As you can see from the list of possible variables this project could quickly become a senior physics assignment. I have also seen it used, very successfully, in a kindergarten classroom. The limits are only set by the creativity of the teacher and students!

Back to our class: Since this was the first day of the project, our dependent variable was quickly established as the type of empty bottle since we were limited to empty 2 litre pop bottles that I had collected over the Christmas holidaysओठेर्स Because it is important to me, as a classroom teacher, to have some written record of the students’ learning, I distributed the fish bone diagram at this point of the lesson. The sticky note for the type of bottle became the head of the fish and the remaining sticky notes became the bones along the side.

2. Perform and Record (=EXPLORE)

Here is a list of the materials I had on hand for them:

· Glue guns

· Glue sticks

· Tape

· Construction paper

· Scissors

· Rulers

During the next class the students worked intently on building their bottle rockets. During this collaborative process they used instruments (compass, ruler, and protractor), measured, calibrated, recorded, invented and experimented.

Their final task, prior to launch, was to design a data table on which they could gather all their data. Our intent was to fire off each bottle rocket then manipulate one variable in order to have a bigger and better launch next time!

Launch day! There was great excitement and enthusiasm around going outside for the launch, despite the freezing temperatures. Naturally all the students were sent to get all of their outdoor gear on prior to launch. One group, who had not finished building their rocket the day before wanted to stay inside and build. When it was pointed out that the teacher could not leave them unattended in the classroom and they would have to come outside with the rest of the class they quickly got their act together and accomplished more work in 5 minutes than during the entire previous 75 minute period!

Every single bottle rocket experienced a successful launch! The students who had filled their bottle rockets almost to the top with water quickly realized that the quantity of water they had chosen was preventing a sufficient amount of pressure from building up to experience a terrific launch. Because time allowed them to re-launch with a different volume of water they actually got to perform and record two trials in one day.

3. Analyze and Interpret (=EXPLAIN)

Because everyone was present for the bottle rocket launches there was a great deal of ad hoc comparing and contrasting of the bottle rockets and how they performed during the launch while we were outside on launch day. Because the launch itself requires total cooperation between all members of the group it was quickly realized that each individual’s behaviour was also a variable. “I wasn’t ready when he pulled the trigger!” “She didn’t pump up the pressure enough!” “The launch pad was crooked!” are just a few of the exclamations over heard. In fact, if time permitted, a whole inquiry could be done just on the actual launch, which could compliment the inquiry into the design of the bottle rockets.

Upon return to the classroom, from the launch pad, the groups were given time to analyze, evaluate and review the performance of their bottle rocket during launch. This allowed the students to discuss the cause and effect of any problems they encountered with their launch. For example, fins that were not evenly distributed caused the rocket to veer to one side rather than launch straight up. It also gave them the opportunity of recognize both good and poor features of their construction. For example, duct tape worked better than scotch tape for attaching fins, we know this because the fin attached with scotch tape fell of whereas the one attached with duct tape did not.

4. Communicate (=EXTEND)

Yet again the communication component of the inquiry became important to me as a classroom teacher because it allowed me to collect samples of the students work in order to justify and document their marks. Each group could produce a report, in writing, which contains their reflections on the activity. To help guide their reflections the students could be asked to respond to these types of questions:

How important was your choice of building materials?

How closely did you follow your initial design?

What did each person contribute to the group?

What will you do differently next time?

Because the process is where most of the true learning occurs in this activity I chose to make the process worth 50% of the mark and the product (finished bottle rocket plus written report) worth the other 50% of the mark.


Bottle rocket launchers can be ordered from a variety of scientific suppliers. The one we used was purchased from Pro Lab Scientific for a cost of about $65.00. There are also several sites on the internet which provide instructions for building your own.

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