Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 30
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
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A Rocket Science Summer: Students Aim for the Skies In “The Art and Science of Model Rocketry” Class

Ellen Gilbert

All the media attention given to the recent anniversary of the moon landing has special resonance on the John Witherspoon Middle School football field, where the whoosh of rockets taking off is an everyday occurrence for students in Michael Rodos’s Princeton Regional Schools Summer Enrichment Program course, “The Art and Science of Model Rocketry.”

“Students will design, build, and launch model rockets hundreds of feet into the air,” reads Mr. Rodos’s course description of the class, which is intended for students in grades three through seven. “We will gather data on the flights and learn a few mathematical techniques to calculate the velocity, rate of acceleration, and altitude of each vehicle. Students will examine topics pertaining to the physics of rocketry and aerodynamics, such as thrust, lift, drag, pitch, yaw, roll, mass, momentum, force, and energy.”

In addition to this formidable checklist of concepts to be mastered, Mr. Rodos has created a blog for viewing the class’s progress ( A photo gallery including a picture of each student posing with his or her rocket is replete with scientific detail. We learn, for example, that Sydney Dubin’s “Silver Alpha,” an estes alpha-class rocket, made its first flight on July 24 with an A8-3 engine; it achieved an altitude of 320 feet, moving at 91 feet per second, and was recovered.

“This blog from our summer enrichment program is good in every way: teacher leadership, student engagement, technology use, and just plain cool,” commented Superintendent Judy Wilson.

Mr. Rodos’s boyish demeanor belies the 15 years he has spent teaching the fourth grade at Community Park. A previous winner of a Princeton Education Foundation “mini-grant” for a learning-to-type project, he said that this is the second summer for his course on rockets, which stems from his experiences as a Boy Scout. When the call for potential summer programs first came out, he said, he immediately thought, “This will be perfect.” He noted that the math he teaches in the course is “meant to be used for calculating altitude and velocity; the point isn’t to teach math, but it’s part of it.”

Girls have accounted for 20 to 30 percent of the turn-out, he reported, although he did teach one session where girls outnumbered boys. Students, who tend to be mostly rising fourth and fifth graders, come from both public and private area schools. The tuition for the course is $300, with a $45 materials fee.

“A couple of the kids have launched before,” Mr. Rodos said, “but most kids haven’t. It’s so much easier than people think. I get that it’s scary — they’re explosive and they go really high — but it’s really very simple. There’s glue and balsa wood, just like any arts and crafts project.” This did not deter an administrator from half-jokingly, half-anxiously asking him, “You’re not going to set the school on fire, are you?”

“It’s really fun,” said rising sixth-grader Andrew Jones. A fan of birds of prey, Andrew named his latest rocket “The Osprey”; his previous one was “The Hawk.”

There was near-consensus that the best part of the class was the launching, even though the class’s motto is “Some will be lost and some will be broken.” On a recent day, four students comprised the “tracking station,” complete with clipboard, to watch from the other end of the field the descent of each rocket after it was launched.

Exclamations of “Perfect!” immediately after each rocket was launched harkened back to control room lingo of years past. There was room for fantasy too; “My secret service satellite has been launched into orbit,” intoned Mr. Rodos as one rocket sped upward.

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