On Saturday, in a field off Sacandaga Road in Galway, dozens of 2-liter soda bottles were achieving every 2-liter soda bottle’s dream: to be repurposed as a rocket and launched hundreds of feet through the air in the name of science.
Or, more specifically, physics, if you ask Galway Junior/Senior High School physics teacher Kris Darlington, who created and organizes an event every year called Community Rocket Day, now in its sixth year.
“It started because I just wanted to get more people interested in physics,” said Darlington, a Union College graduate.
Students begin their rocket projects the first day of school, drawing on research and lab reports compiled by students from previous years. The point is to build a rocket, record the process and, on Community Rocket Day, hopefully set a school record.
Around Christmas, they must submit a 20-page report on the design process, research and prototyping, tests and improvements, and, of course, how the rocket flew.
The record going into this year’s Rocket Day, set in 2014, was 256 yards. Darlington said he’s seen a marked increase in the quality of rockets over the years as past research is put to good use by students in every incoming class.
The first part of the school year in Darlington’s physics class is spent on Newton’s laws and kinematics, a unit of instruction he called “bodies in motion.”
“I just looked for a project that I could work engineering design into that would take them through the whole bodies in motion part of the year,” said Darlington.
But on Saturday it was clear the project is about more than the study of objects in motion. The district invites anyone from the community to try out their rocket creations or to simply just be a part of the day.
Dozens of people were gathered on the west side of the school soccer field, watching the rockets streak across the field and into an adjacent field where students were stationed to measure the distance each rocket flew.
If a rocket looked to be a potential record breaker, a flag was planted at the site of its landing. A student with a laser range finder then radioed the distance back to the launch site, where students who built the potential record breaker eagerly waited to see if they had made a small piece of Galway history.
The launch mechanism was built by students in the physics department of Union College. Each rocket is filled with one liter of water and mounted on the launch mechanism. The water fills the launch mechanism and is pressurized by a nearby air compressor.
When the time for the launch comes, a student blows a vuvuzela to alert the students downrange who are measuring flight distance and ferrying the rockets via bicycle back to the launch site.
Another student pulls a ripcord that releases the pressurized water, and off the rocket goes.
Students Jacob Thompson and Nate Shader’s rocket, painted bright red and dubbed “The Flying Lady,” was the clear favorite. The rocket was outfitted with stabilizing fins made of vinyl siding. A golf ball provided weight at the rocket’s nose.
“We were very meticulous on measuring, making sure they were nice and straight,” Thompson said of the fins. “And with our weight distribution, we did a lot of work on NASA simulators, so we made sure the weight was evenly distributed.”
Thompson added that he and Shader used a copy of the previous record holder’s design report and improved upon it with The Flying Lady.
“We’re trying to break 300 [yards],” said Thompson. “We rebuilt it last night, so we’ll see if it doesn’t go in the woods this time.”
At the end of the day The Flying Lady set a Community Rocket Day record of 290 yards.
Six years into the rocket program and Darlington has it down to a science, with a dash of social engineering thrown in for good measure: Every year his class visits a first-grade class to talk about rocket science and teach the kids how to make a rocket from a soda bottle. The younger students then get to test their rockets at Community Rocket Day and, Darlington said, hopefully gain an appreciation for physics and engineering by the time they’re old enough for his class.
The first-graders’ rockets don’t typically fare well, as they’re usually made with cardboard and duct tape. One errant rocket flew off into the parking lot and hit Darlington’s parents’ car. But the point, he said, is to get the kids interested in science and engineering at a young age because there’s a shortage of students going into those fields.
“I want them to be scientists, I want them to think like scientists, act like scientists, test hypotheses, and the project is a perfect way for them to do that, because that’s exactly what they’re doing,” said Darlington. “I became a teacher because we need more scientists and engineers.”
Darlington added that the rocket project teaches his kids teamwork and life skills that can be used in any career.
“It calls on them to work on every skill that they’re going to need when they’re an adult: writing — their design reports are 20 pages long — teamwork, prototyping, designing, fixing stuff, troubleshooting,” said Darlington. “I don’t want to say the science is secondary, but it’s more of a soft-skills project and that’s kind of the point.”
Lance Sherman’s son graduated from Galway in 2014 and in the past participated in Community Rocket Day. Sherman built the tripod that the launch mechanism was mounted on, and attends the event every year. He got involved, he said, because Darlington needed someone with shop tools who could fabricate the tripod, and he knew his son enjoyed the event.
“They have a hell of a lot of fun doing this,” said Sherman. “If you can get them learning something and having fun, that’s a win-win.”