The Year of Discombobulations. That's probably the best way to describe this year's Rocketry Unit for the 6th grade at the John C. Page School in West Newbury - our eighth year. As usual, the unit is spread out over a week, starting with a pre-build session after school. There is also a day of practicing the use of an Estes Altitrack and stop watch; a day of building and finally - launch day. There are only 58 kids in the 6th grade this year, down from 78 the year before and the smallest group we've had so far. John had been warning me all year long about this year's 6th grade. That this group was going to be a challenge - some behavior issues but mostly just not being on top of things. Although John says that every year, so I take it with a grain of salt. This year though he was right - not so much behavior, the kids were great in that regard, but they were definitely not on top of things. And that may have rubbed off on us, because it seemed as if we (especially me) were not quite on top of things either this year. The first discombobulation was that, because of various reasons, we were going to be short-staffed throughout the unit (#1). This meant that I was going to be taking the pictures - a bad omen right at the beginning. You can view my attempts in the Gallery.
Seventeen students signed up to help with the prebuild session and John was going to have to weed that down to a manageable number. But come that day, only six students had remembered to bring in permission slips to stay after school (# 2) . Six was less than we needed, and that would not have been too bad if they all were girls - unfortunately we only had one girl! We had the students do the usual - assemble launch bags (motor, igniter, plug and wadding) for both A8-3 and B6-4 motors, fill glue bottles, and assemble trifold/shock cords. We had enough parachutes from previous years so we only had to make streamers. Since that was the most difficult task, it went to the girl. We actually got done most of what we had to do, except for copying the Launch Cards and Flight Log - because I forgot to bring them (#3).
There are three classes to the 6th grade (taught by John Benvenuti, John Peters and Brenda Erhardt) and we built our normal three rockets - Razor, Thing-a-ma-jig and Estes Alpha. The Alpha is the most difficult and that is always given to the class that John (Benvenuti) thinks can handle it the best. In past years, we've used a fin-jig for the Alpha that I made out of 1/4" plywood . This year we used one from Apogee Components. It is made of laser cut card board and worked really well. The build was surprisingly uneventful. There were no glue issues and no jumping the gun on assembly that we've had to deal with in the past. I'm not sure, and don't want to know why. I'm just thankful!
Launch day is usually the next day, but because of the 6th grade schedule, it was three days after the build, which was good since I still had not gone through the launch equipment to make sure everything was working and charge the batteries (#4). I'm usually nervous before the launch but this year I was especially nervous because it looked as if we were going to be down two people. I like to have seven proctors at the launch, each with their own duty. That leaves me to tackle any last minute issues or problems that arise during the launch - broken fins, inserting new igniters, rocket retrieval, etc. Katy was one of the proctors and she was arriving home from USC on a late flight (midnight) the night before. However she arrived sick and spent the next day in bed. The morning of the launch we were down to four (#5)! That spelled chaos! Also John had forgotten about parental permission slips for the kids to leave the building until the night before the launch. That resulted in a bit of a scramble the morning of the launch to make sure all permission slips were in (#6). John and Brenda were able to 'volunteer' two parents to help out at the launch. One did crowd control, keeping the students in line and the other manned the reload table. They both did a great job and I can't thank them enough.
The launch field is a 3-soccer field directly across the road from the school. I set up the field for the launch early the morning of the launch. Last year halfway through the setup, the sprinklers went on! I headed that problem off this year by stopping by the town's DPW office the day before and asked that the sprinklers be turned off the next day. It was good that I did, because they were set to go on that morning. The morning of the launch the weather was looking great: sunny, mid 60's with very little breeze! Almost too good. Parents are invited to the launch and we had our largest parent turn-out this year, which was great. When we got to the field, John turned the PA system on to explain to the parents what the launch was about and what to expect - and screeching feedback came out of the speakers (#7). I had set the speakers up an hour earlier and they worked fine - now feedback! It took several minutes of fiddling and we found that the problem was with only one of the speakers. So we unplugged that one and went with one speaker.
Each team launches their rocket twice, first on an A8-3 and then on a B6-4. For each flight, the kids record their tangent angle using and Estes Altitrak and time their flights with a stopwatch at a station 200 ft from the launch pad, with John P. there to help. Using those two measurements, the kids calculate their flight altitudes and average speed in ft/sec and mph. The first round of launches on the A8-3 motor went off without a hitch. The first launch of the B6-4 motor always gets a big 'Wow!' from the kids. I love seeing that. It's got to be the biggest 'wow' you'll ever hear from a B motor flight! We did have a larger number of rockets that needed new igniters and I'm not sure yet why that happened. After all of the B6-4 launches were done, we had our normal 6-way drag race with Razors and Thing-a-ma-jigs. I launched three of my own: Cork Screw, Frick-n-Frack and Trifecta. All worked great. The Frick-n-Frack always gets a big cheer. That is a perennial favorite. Finally, we launched 6 Alphas on C6-3 motors, each with two 80 ft streamers. We've done this a few times and this time was the best. All six rockets launched, straight up and only one torn streamer. It got a lot of cheers and wow's. And that was it, we took our group shot, cleaned up the field and the kids headed back to school for lunch. That afternoon, they finish their calculations and have a writing and drawing assignment about the unit.
There is always one good event/incidence during the unit; this year it was at the launch. The teams that are involved in the drag races at the end are launching their rockets for the third time. While loading for the first drag race, John called me over to one of the pads where a team of two girls were having problems. Their Thing-a-ma-jig was on the pad with no igniter or plug. The girls said that they think they put the igniter and plug in the rocket - meaning the body tube! I took the nose cone off but couldn't immediately see either and didn't want to fish around for them. So I got a new igniter and plug, came back and helped the girls put the igniter in. "Girls, I can understand the first launch (having problems with the igniter); maybe the second. But the third?!!"
In spite of that and all the other mishaps, it was another success. I guess after eight years we are getting pretty good at this - discombobulations or not.