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Ideas take flight

OMSI visits St. Helens for a 5th-grade rocketry workshop

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Brian St. John (left) and Tony McKean (right) construct rockets from paper and tape in the gymnasium of Lewis & Clark Elementary School on Tuesday, May 19. Their fifth-grade class participated in an Oregon Museum of Science and Industry workshop that challenged students to design rockets that could fly it all the way across the gym.“Three...two...one...”


A paper rocket shoots through the air, and then comes to rest somewhere on the wooden floorboards of the Lewis & Clark Elementary School gymnasium, to delighted laughs and shouts from the fifth-grade class.

“It’s an engineering exercise,” explains Tony Smith, whose full-time job is conducting educational outreach for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. “So it teaches them about kind of the problem-solving aspect of engineering, and it teaches them to kind of be creative.”

The workshop is also an exercise in scientific experimentation.

Smith encourages the students to keep a single variable in mind as they build their rockets out of paper and tape, and then rebuild or modify them after launch. What happens when they add a triangular wing, or remove one? What about tape? What about the air pressure they use to launch their rockets?

The first student in Dee Anna Henrie’s fifth-grade class to test his rocket Tuesday, May 19, is Brian St. John. He’s excited, eager to see his simple ship take flight. He presses down on the air pump a few times, nodding along as Smith explains the system to him, and then pushes the launch button.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Ezra Albrecht, a fifth-grader in Dee Anna Henrie's class at Lewis & Clark Elementary School, gestures to a classmate's ready-for-launch paper rocket with his own rocket. Under the supervision of Tony Smith (also pictured), students fired off rockets using air pressure in an Oregon Museum of Science and Industry workshop.The paper cone of the rocket blasts off. It leaves the rest of the rocket behind.

St. John is dismayed, but not dejected. His rocket has been “decapitated,” he exclaims to the other students, who are now lining up to test their creations out one by one.

But it doesn’t take long before one student sends his rocket all the way to the wall on the other end of the gym. And then another.

Building and testing the paper rockets is an “open-ended activity,” Smith says. Students have 45 minutes to build and launch whatever they can — hopefully keeping their variable in mind, testing it, and learning about physics and engineering along the way.

Unfazed by the failure of his first rocket, St. John returns to the drawing board, adding more tape to keep the cone firmly in place. He tests his rocket again; it performs better, but he’s still not satisfied. He takes it and goes back to the construction table.

“The more tape, the farther it’ll go,” St. John says, when asked what he has learned so far. “And if you still have holes [in the rocket], it won’t go much farther.”

He doesn’t know about wings, he adds, because he hasn’t tested those yet.

The rocket experiment is not the only workshop OMSI offers for local schools.

Smith says instructors like him also teach students about biology, chemistry, geology and more.

“We have like 30 different classes that we do, and they’re all super hands-on,” Smith says, adding, “Pretty much name a scientific discipline, and we have a class that, more or less, covers it.”