Woodland Public Schools’ third graders learn rocket science by building and launching model rockets

While this year’s launch took place in North Fork’s field in June, past launches started in Woodland Middle School’s football field.

WOODLAND — The entire third grade class at Woodland Public Schools’ North Fork Elementary learned the fundamentals of rocket science by researching, building, and launching model rockets. Brian Peterson, a third-grade teacher at North Fork, continued the tradition of teaching rocketry started by Leif Erickson, a teacher who first introduced rocketry classes at Woodland Middle School.

Brian Peterson, 3rd grade teacher, helps a student prepare a rocket for launch. Photo courtesy of Woodland School District
Brian Peterson, 3rd grade teacher, helps a student prepare a rocket for launch. Photo courtesy of Woodland School District

On the day of the launch, students were supervised by Peterson; Scott Landrigan, the facilities and safety director for the district; and by Erickson who retired in 2016 but returns to help ensure students stay safe and all rockets launch properly. 

“We started the rocket club last year, however, with no field trips this school year due to the pandemic, the staff decided this would be a great alternative for our entire third grade class,” said Peterson. “Since the staff often collaborates on projects that can involve multiple subjects, we incorporated a variety of curriculum for our rocketry project including history, science, math, and reading comprehension.”

While Erickson initially started rocketry at the middle school, Peterson worked with him to introduce the club at the elementary level. “Kids really enjoy building and launching model rockets,” said Peterson. “Learning about rockets generates a lot of excitement and interest both in science and in space travel.”

For Erickson, his interest in rocketry started when he was attending college, and it had been a passion he wanted to bring to his students, too. “While I was in college, if you took a certain number of science classes, you would receive actual moon rocks,” he remembered. “When our Highly Capable (Hi-Cap) program was looking for a new subject, I suggested teaching rocketry.”

Retired teacher Leif Erickson supervises a student's rocket launch. Photo courtesy of Woodland School District
Retired teacher Leif Erickson supervises a student’s rocket launch. Photo courtesy of Woodland School District

After using rockets in the Hi-Cap program, Erickson went on to add the course as a summer-school opportunity. “There’s so much to learn from how rocket engine sizes influence rocket performance; how to calculate the dimensions of a rocket; how to use physics to ensure proper rocket balance; and then students get to experiment with their creativity, painting their rockets with amazing designs.”

While this year’s launch took place in North Fork’s field in June, past launches started in Woodland Middle School’s football field. “Some students worked as ‘spotters’ as we had rockets with parachutes that floated to a much larger launch area,” said Erickson. “The farthest we had a rocket float was out to Horseshoe Lake – more than a mile away from the launch point!”

The North Fork teaching staff incorporated history, science, math, and reading comprehension into the rocketry project. Photo courtesy of Woodland School District
The North Fork teaching staff incorporated history, science, math, and reading comprehension into the rocketry project. Photo courtesy of Woodland School District

In addition to building the rockets themselves, Erickson’s students learned additional laws of physics including gravity and impact dispersion by experimenting with egg drops. Students built protective containers to dissipate impact so they could drop eggs from large heights to land intact, hopefully. 

“No matter how poorly some students might be doing in other subjects, they would come to school knowing that school could be fun, and it can be a blast to learn,” said Erickson. “I wanted to show my students that learning can be fun – you just have to put your all into it.”

Erickson, who retired in 2016, taught for 42 years in Woodland first as a middle school teacher for five years before transitioning to the fifth grade. “That’s when I discovered I loved teaching fifth graders – there was so much less chaos than at the middle school level,” he said. “After seven years in fifth, I took on a second-grade class and discovered I had a bug for teaching even younger grades.”

A student retrieves a rocket which returned to Earth using a streamer parachute. Photo courtesy of Woodland School District
A student retrieves a rocket which returned to Earth using a streamer parachute. Photo courtesy of Woodland School District

For Erickson, jump-starting students’ imaginations and turning them on to school was an instrumental part of his practice, one he uses as he continues to work as a substitute teacher for the district. “Sometimes, it just takes a bit of success to show kids they can learn and it can be fun,” he said. “Teaching is one of those things that if you love it, you’re getting paid to go have fun every day – it’s hard to stay away.”

Learn more about how Woodland Public Schools educates students and serves the community, by visiting our dedicated news webpage at www.woodlandschools.org/news/wsd

Information provided by Woodland School District.

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