Hudson Rocket Science
Rocket Science Takes Off at Hudson High School
It’s not uncommon for students at Hudson High School to see C02 rockets launched down the hallway of Hudson High School. Rockets are one way that teacher Bob Van Buren keeps physics interesting and dynamic. It’s no surprise. Hudson Public Schools in Hudson, Massachusetts, is recognized as a leader in instructional innovation.
Van Buren wants to show his students that physics may not be easy, but it can be engaging. That’s a challenge in an environment where kids are overexposed to entertainment, and information on the Internet is just a click away.
“As much as I like the Internet, it can be counterproductive,” said Van Buren. “Kids can get anything on Google without investing any mental energy. It’s easy and they can find the information again when they need it. But, looking up something is not science. Physics is one of the most interesting subjects you can teach, but sometimes it’s taught in a way that intimidates students. It’s important that more kids pursue science and engineering. We need to show them how interesting these subjects are.”
Van Buren’s background in engineering taught him that applied science is essential to sustaining interest. He uses his experience to create applications that are germane to the curriculum and have measurable output.
A class favorite is the one he developed to help students learn the principles of acceleration—complete with a C02-propelled rocket and interactive technology to keep them engaged.
Van Buren’s rocket design was complicated and took nearly a year to finalize. It had to be light enough to attach to a long cable stretched along the school corridor, and capable of carrying measurement tools. A longtime user of PASCO science solutions, Van Buren’s design uses AirLink2, a single sensor port that supports a wireless connection to a Bluetooth-enabled computer, and a 3-axis accelerometer sensor. The frame of the rocket is clear to make the payload visible. Using his prototype as the example, Van Buren’s students now design and build their own rockets, collect data in real-time, and analyze the results.
“Rockets are dynamic,” he said. “Each launch is a variation on a theme. It’s very appealing to the kids. When students are captivated and interested you know you have a good thing going.”
Students use the rocket to collect data and analyze the rate of change of acceleration, which, Van Buren said, is something they usually only think about in calculus class. AirLink2 allows the students to view the data collected with the accelerometer in real-time on laptops loaded with DataStudio, data collection and analysis software. DataStudio generates an acceleration graph that is printed and given to each student who must figure out the rate of change, or “jerk.”
“Jerk is an engineering term that measures any human conveyance that moves something,” said Van Buren.
“Think of a train ride that’s jerky. It’s uncomfortable for the passengers, so modern subways and trains have jerk specifications that keep changing acceleration within an acceptable range. Finding the jerk gives the students insight into engineering design. More importantly, it gives them clear visibility into something that’s invisible. Without the PASCO accelerometer we couldn’t do this.”
"Physics is one of the most interesting subjects you can teach, but sometimes it’s taught in a way that intimidates students. It’s important that more kids pursue science and engineering. We need to show them how interesting these subjects are."
Bob Van Buren
Van Buren teaches honors and AP physics, both of which have a lot of theory. But, his emphasis is on hands-on learning and he gives his students plenty of opportunities to excel. All it takes is practice.
“The first time I ask them to do something complicated they say, ‘no, it’s too hard.’ But I tell them ‘when you play football, you practice. It’s the same thing. You have to practice science.’ Many kids are not used to critical thinking and analysis, skills that Van Buren said are important not only in science, but in life.
For this reason, he puts less weight on exams and more weight on labs and participation.
“In the real world, you get a job to design or analyze something and it’s not done in a day,” he said. “You’re not judged for a day’s work. This idea of a grade depending upon one exam is not realistic. I want to give students opportunities to learn. If you are hands-on, it sticks with you.”
Van Buren’s use of technology goes beyond rockets. He also uses carts, ramps, oscillators, optics, and voltage sensors and just about anything that plugs into The ScienceWorkshop 500 Interface, which works with DataStudio software and collects data directly to a computer. Another favorite technology is the PASCO Classic Dynamics System, nearly friction-free carts with low friction wheels and spring-loaded suspension, and aluminum track for studying Newton’s Laws, Conservation of Momentum and other topics.
Van Buren said he has observed a difference in student learning since he began using PASCO solutions.
“They pay more attention, and they’re more excited and engaged,” he said. “Understanding has increased. Participation has increased. I see it on quizzes, and in how they write up labs. Their scores are good. When I look across the last three years, I can tell you, anecdotally, they are doing quite well.”
And although he’d like to see more kids in advanced physics classes, he said the numbers are improving. “AP Physics has a reputation as a demanding math and science course; students going into engineering take it, he said. “Honors physics has a much broader group of kids. And some kids just want to come in and shoot off rockets.”