Straw Rockets: Full STEAM Ahead!

Middle School science teaches kids how to be problem-solvers and innovators through project-based inquiry—with an emphasis on creativity and encouragement to take risks.


The smiles are probably the first thing you notice when visiting a Middle School science class at Calhoun. They're everywhere. You see them when students collaborate to create moon-landing devices, and you notice them while they're testing the earthquake-resistant structures they've built. It's safe to say students are having fun—yes, fun!—learning about scientific inquiry and principles to the point that work metamorphoses into play as they explore the various dimensions of a given subject.

While stalwart Calhoun philosophies such as “learning by doing" and interdisciplinary teaching have long fostered this type of innovative, exciting hands-on classroom environment, MS science teachers have essentially strapped a rocket-powered jet pack to those core beliefs by also embracing the STEAM (Science-Technology-Engineering- Art-Math) approach to teaching science.


From the kitchen to outer space, STEAM covers it all. Joan Gillman's classes are like a STEAM cornucopia, and include the aforementioned moon-landing-device project and the wildly popular straw rocket unit in fifth grade. For the latter, students are challenged to design and assemble a straw rocket, with the aim of flying it the farthest using a pneumatic force-powered launcher.

To begin, fifth graders display their design skills by drawing a few examples of what they want their rocket to look like, including the exact specifications and any distinctive features they intend to include. Once they've settled on a particular sketch, rocket construction commences by utilizing math skills to measure and cut straws using metric system units. The mass of the completed rocket must also be accurately weighed, using the triple beam balance. During the engineering process, students work with several variables: the length of the straw body, number of fins, and diameter of the clay nose cone.

The students get to test their devices right outside Calhoun on 81st Street, with a metric tape measure secured on the sidewalk so students can determine whose rocket soars the farthest. Once they've tested the rockets three times from different launch angles, the students are ready to return to the lab to analyze the data and come up with a consensus as to which type of rocket flew best. From there they redesign their original rocket to try to improve its flying ability.

“It's heartwarming to hear the shouts of joy as the students' rockets fly down the block—this is what real active learning is about!" exclaims Joan.  “I find that when students are actively engaged in the learning process, they have a much easier time mastering the concepts and remembering them for future reference. The students will find the lessons memorable and fun at the same time."

Joan has presented numerous workshops on her straw rocket unit, at such esteemed events as the National Science Teachers Association's (NSTA) first-ever STEAM-related conference and the Science Council of New York City Conference (SCONYC).

She has also penned articles about her “Straw Rockets are out of This World" curriculum, published in Science & Children, by NSTA, and in a book published by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) called Bringing STEM to the Elementary Classroom  

A"Straw Rockets Are Out of This World," by Joan Gillman, Science and Children, October 2013


Straw Rockets

Main Building 3rd - 12th Grades 433 West End Avenue New York, NY 10024 212.497.6500

Robert L. Beir Lower School Building 2.8 Years - 2nd Grade 160 West 74th Street New York, NY 10023 212.497.6550

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