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An object in motion: an integrative approach to accelerating students' interest in Newton's Laws of Motion: engineering of water-powered soda-bottle rockets has been utilized to demonstrate Newton's laws of motion for years. There are, however, some challenges.

Introduction: An Integrative Approach

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) have developed broad prevalence in the American (U.S.) education system over the last decade. Academic, government, and business experts emphasize that attracting K-12-university students to STEM subject matter is crucial for expanding the innovation capacity of the U.S. and preparing citizens for viable 21st Century employment. Historically, U.S. K-12 education has taught STEM subjects in segregation with demonstrably deteriorating results (National Academies Press, 2007).

The new Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM, 2010), Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (The National Academies Press, 2013), Benchmarks for Science Literacy: Project 2061 (AAAS, 1994) and the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association's Standards for Technological Literacy (STL) (ITEA/ITEEA) (2000/2002/2007) endeavor to motivate associated teachers to enable students in making transverse connections between the curricula of STEM areas of study in an integrated fashion. Integrated STEM is formally defined as "the application of technology/engineering design-based pedagogical approaches to intentionally teach content and practices of science and mathematics concurrently with the practices of technology/engineering education" (Sanders, 2008, 2008, 2012). The publication Science for All Americans states: "It is the union of science, mathematics, and technology that forms the scientific endeavor that makes it so successful. Although each of these human enterprises has a character of its own, each is dependent on and reinforces the others" (AAAS, 1990). Margaret A. Honey, Chair of the 2014 National Academic Press publication, STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research states: "... I know I speak for my committee colleagues in noting the exciting potential of leveraging the natural connections between and among the four STEM subjects for the benefit of students" (The National Academies Press, 2014).

Integrative Collaboration

Basic management science dictates that you cannot force collaboration. Rather it is the "process of joint decision making among independent parties involving joint ownership of decisions and collective responsibility for outcomes. The essence of collaboration involves working across professional boundaries" (Liedtka & Whitten, 1998). The project described here is the result of a twelve-year metamorphic collaboration between science, math, and technology education colleagues at State College Area Schools, Park Forest Middle School, Penn State University professors/outreach programs, and professional associations (TEEAP/ITEEA). Our students feast on the educational fruits of these interactions owing largely to the camaraderie resulting from the compliment being paid to educational colleagues who are being sought out for their expertise.

History/Method Rationale

English physicist and mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton, was born on January 4,1643 and is renowned as one of the great minds of the 17th century Scientific Revolution. He is credited with developing the principles of modern physics along with breakthroughs in optics, motion, and mathematics. His 1687 publication Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy) (Newton, 1687) is often credited with being the most influential book on physics ever written. Newton's life works are woven into the very fabric of STEM curricula and how we understand/subsist in our world as human beings.

Resultantly, nearly every school child is exposed to Sir Isaac Newton's Laws of Motion. Traditionally, this knowledge base is transmitted in isolated science and math lectures that students receive passively and then must reproduce at assessment time. This teaching approach leads to surface-level acquisition with the burden of knowledge transference placed on the instructor.

In contrast, challenging students with laboratory-based problem-elucidating situations utilizing science and mathematics via hands-on/mind-on manipulative engineering activities demands heightened critical-thinking skills, enhancement of detached learning strategies, and generation of applicable/transferable learning experiences (Anderson, L.W., Krathwohl, D.R., Bloom, B.S.) (2001).

Newton's Laws of Motion

Newton investigated the relationship between forces and changes in motion. His first law, often recognized as the Law of Inertia, describes an object's tendency to continue doing what it is doing. The law states that an object in motion will remain in uniform (constant) motion unless acted on by an unbalanced force, while an object at rest will remain at rest, unless acted on by an unbalanced force. This is the reason that you continue to move forward as the vehicle you are riding in slows, or feel the push to the outside of a turn when the vehicle changes direction. This change in direction or speed is called acceleration and is addressed in Newton's Second Law.

The Second Law describes the relationship between the mass of the object, the net force applied to it, and the resulting acceleration. The net force is the sum of all the forces acting on the object. If this net force is unbalanced, then the object's motion will change in the direction of this net force; the net force could cause the object to increase its speed, to decrease its speed, or change direction.

Newton's Third Law of Motion describes the pairing of forces. It is often recognized by the statement; "For every action force, there exists an equal and opposite reaction force." It is important to remember that both forces are not acting on the same object. Force A acts on object B, while force B acts on object A, If both forces, being equal and opposite, acted on the same object, they would be balanced and the net force would be zero. With zero net force, there would be no change in motion.

We can examine a simple event to combine the application of all three laws. Consider an object released from above the Earth's surface. The object is pulled toward the Earth with a force. Interestingly, the object pulls back on the Earth with the same force (third law). With the same force acting on each of the objects, we see an obvious change in the motion of the object that is dropped. This shows the existence of the unbalanced net force (first law). The net force is acting downward, toward the Earth; therefore, the object accelerates toward the Earth at a rate that can be calculated by the equation acceleration=force/mass. Simply rotate this example from a vertical to horizontal axis, and then consider the following activities. While doing so, keep in mind the old proverb: Tell me and I'm bound to forget, demonstrate and perhaps I will remember; however, let me do it and it's mine forever.

Project Design

The origin of this endeavor found fertile ground in a lecture delivered by Virginia Tech professor Dr. Mark Sanders at a fall TEEAP educational conference held in Camp Hill, PA. In speaking about the importance of incorporating math into technology education curriculum, Dr. Sanders emphasized that "math cannot end with just measuring." The authors felt as though the message was being delivered directly to them, and it resulted in profound changes in their methodology as teachers. The curricula that developed as a result of Dr. Sanders' oration would not abandon measuring, but rather enhance and augment the necessary skill set with copious amounts of math and science.

Engineering of water-powered soda-bottle rockets has been utilized to demonstrate Newton's laws of motion for years. There are, however, some challenges. The propellant dictates that experiments be conducted outside in accommodating weather conditions. Moreover, precise repeatable measurements are problematic to make and record, Resultantly, our team decided to utilize common two-liter soda bottles and compressed air as an energy source. An interior test facility evolved that incorporated a laser-based computer logging/timing arrangement for year-round indoor testing. The test bed spans forty feet and can be quickly set up and disassembled to make room for other undertakings.

The following educational criteria were kept in the foreground while designing and periodically renewing this program: safety; student success with an emphasis on tenacity; student communication/collaboration with peers/instructors; precise measuring incorporating mathematical interaction with fraction and ratios; copious amounts of industrial material manipulation with tools and machines; recognition of space/time relationships; observing, collecting, recording, and organizing data; graphing/interpreting data; predicting with spreadsheet graphs and mathematical calculations. The resulting student-led inquiry-based activities involve sixth grade students and span a twelve-week time frame, meeting with the students every other day for 40-minute periods. Differentiated assessment is utilized to enhance student success across the entire learning curve of student abilities. An activity period at the end of each school day is utilized for remediation and acceleration of class objectives.

Constructing a Test Bed Device

A typical two-liter soda bottle as we know it today was developed for PepsiCo by Nathaniel Wyeth of DuPont and patented in 1973. Most are molded one-piece designs made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic. Before being utilized as a pressurized fuel reservoir, maximum pressure safety was investigated. Numerous uncertified internet sites elaborate on tests to 140/150 psi. None of the contacted soda bottle manufacturers were willing to deliberate on use of their products for any purpose other than containing carbonated soda, Manufacturers shared that when used in this fashion they provide extremely safe working pressures of 40 to 50 psi. Resultantly, the project design criteria was limited to 40 psi. This amount of energy has proven more than adequate for the students' STEM experiments and has resulted in no bottle failures.

Two-liter soda bottles come in two basic shapes: cylindrical along the main body or sculpted to mimic early glass Coca Cola bottles. The latter were found undesirable for this program due to constantly changing diameters along the central body. The instructors have discovered that the former come in six slightly different dimension configurations, mostly terminating in whole-number and factional combinations. This diversity of measurements is the perfect scenario for an unadulterated experience in accurate measuring. As a reality check, students are shown a box of previous project parts that did not fit the fabricators' bottles at assembly time. Accurate measuring is stressed as well as the importance of asking questions during any lecture if a student doesn't completely understand the material. If one is not illuminated after asking a question, continue to query the instructor until all is crystal clear. Students are coached that, in a class of 20 students, on average any question will be of benefit to at least five others.

A detailed lesson on English measurement with reinforcing online and paper worksheets is delivered to students. The lecture is augmented with fractions, ratios, and discussion of least common denominators. Converting fractions to decimal form is defined and practiced. The material is then assessed and students with deficits identified and subsequently tutored.

Students are now presented with a demonstration of how to make a three-view thumbnail sketch of their bottle on paper. It is here they will record five critical measurements: length, diameter of main body, cap, knuckle (raised area directly under cap), and circumference. Pupils are provided with rulers, outside calipers, dial indicators, micrometers, and small air pumps (Fizz Keeper) to slightly pressurize the bottle. Instruction is provided detailing how to mathematically calculate the circumference of the main body by multiplying the diameter acquired times Pi. All fractions must be mathematically converted to decimals prior to this calculation.

Once measuring is finished, lessons are presented demonstrating how to mark the bottle into equal quarters. The bottle manufacturing process leaves two faint molding lines along the length of the body directly opposite each other, and fine-point markers are provided to highlight them. Students now must cut narrow strips of paper, accurately calculate the distance between each line, and then divide it in half. The bottle is then marked accordingly. When completed, the class is taken into the CAD lab and instructed, step-by-step, on how to convert their sketches into working drawings with 3D CAD software.

Students are then shown the processes of converting their measurements and drawings into manufactured parts to transform the bottle into a rocket. The final missile is held together by two bands and hung on string by two wheels for launching. At this time, students are temporarily divided into two separate groups based on evaluations, observations of utilizing a ruler accurately, success with the use of the CAD software, and abstract spatial reasoning. One group pursues a tactile approach, utilizing thin-gauge sheet metal to form two bands with a squaring shear, bar folder, forming roll, sheet metal stakes, and aluminum rivets. The students who demonstrated more proficiency go back into the CAD lab and design and print their parts with 3D printers using a variety of filaments. The selection process isn't always perfect, but the split is presented as a random event to give everyone more access to the available space and equipment. Students presenting a compelling case for one area or another are on occasion allowed to switch. Do all students sometimes pursue the same method of fabrication? Not often, but yes. In his book on the differentiated classroom, author Rick Wormeli summed it up: "Fair isn't always equal." The goal is to give each student the biggest bang for his/her educational time as the classroom resources allow.

Students who are pursuing bands fabricated with metal utilize a device originally slated for the bottoms of sliding glass door screens as rollers for guidance assembles. These are available in bulk online from replacement hardware suppliers. Students must remove the rivet holding the wheel in place, enlarge the plastic wheel hole on an instructor-fabricated jig attached to a drill press, and then reassemble with a 10-24 machine bolt. Those working with the additive manufactured bands have a mounting location for the wheel incorporated in the design and utilize the same wheels and clearance/assemble in a similar fashion. This process allows a feature for student projects to be installed and removed from the testing/timing facility.

For experimental purposes, each student fabricates five rocket nozzles from soda-bottle caps. This activity is done on a metal lathe by screwing caps on jigs fashioned by instructors and center-boring holes, one each: 3/32'; 7/64'; 1/8'; 9/64'; and 5/32'! For utilization in a spreadsheet, the fractions must be converted to decimals,

All students fabricate two stabilizer fins. They can choose to utilize 3D/additive manufacturing or cut them out of foam board with the school's CNC laser. In both cases, the design work is done in CAD and then transferred to the appropriate technology for manufacturing.

Finally, assembly of all subsystems is done on a string stretched between two boards fastened in bench vices. Hot-glue guns are used for adhering the fins and bands in place. Visual orientation is augmented with a discussion of getting new tires placed on the family car. Balance and alignment are critical for best performance.

Experimentation and Data Collection

Each student weighs his or her rocket in grams and attaches it to a line stretched 40 feet across the classroom. The projectile is then pressurized to 40 psi and launched three times for each of the fractional nozzle sizes previously listed. Times to traverse the distance are trapped by a laser device and measured to accuracy of hundreds of thousandths of a second. Students record the data and when finished enter it into a (Linear Model and Trend Line) spreadsheet created for this project. The program averages the three launches for each nozzle size and then provides velocities in miles per hour, feet per second, and meters per second and reveals the amount of energy required in "Newtons." The graph trend line generated can then extend the experiments by having students predict the performance of fractionally escalating size nozzles. These hypotheses can then be quantified by manufacturing additional nozzles and conducting supplementary launches. As time allows, the launch distance can be reduced in half, and based on data in hand from 40-foot launches, students predict and test their suppositions.

Of all the innovative ways mobile phones are being used, perhaps the most inspired is as a technology education lesson plan. PFMS students are experimenting with utilizing the phones' electronic accelerometer to gather data by fastening it to their rockets with nylon wire ties. When oriented parallel to the ground it will detect a force of one gravity downwards and an acceleration of zero in two horizontal directions. The internet is rich with apps that can be utilized for gathering data, and most are free. Another worthwhile experiment is checking/quantifying energy generated by flying the rocket into a computer recording impact plate tester. This needs to be the final research step, as it generally results in catastrophic consequences for the rocket. All students successfully completing the program and submitting their work via Google classroom are awarded a certificate declaring them: "Rocket Scientists Magna Cum Laude."

Supplementary Material

The (Linear Model and Trend Line) spreadsheet along with directions for duplication. Detailed CAD drawings/photographs of our rocket launcher, wheel drilling jig, nozzle boring jig, 3D printed bands, and supporting STL files can also be reviewed. CAD drawings and images of student rockets manufactured with both metal and additive manufacturing-built bands are available as tutorial examples. RocketlmpactWeb2.wmv

A link to student rocket impact testing video. Also available is an example of certificates issued to students at completion of the program. A detailed photograph of our adaptation of a Kelvin timing device is included for examination. Questions and constructive criticism are welcome.


The authors wish to acknowledge McDonalds Corporation, ASM Materials Education Foundation, and Seattle-based Functionalize Corporation for funding and donation of cutting-edge 3D printing materials. We would also like to recognize Penn State University Departments of Chemistry, Material Science, Aerospace Engineering, Applied Research Labs (ARL), Center for Innovative Materials Processing through Direct Digital Deposition (CIMP-3D), Physical and Mathematical Sciences Library, and the Center for Science and the Schools (CSATS). Thanks also to the Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Austin for its willingness to facilitate/elevate our students' achievement potential. Ron Shealer, Mount Nittany Middle school, State College Area schools, is an influential collaborator and valued colleague. One group deserving special thanks is the State College School District Area School Board. Its vision is helping to develop stronger connections between the elements of science, technology, engineering, and math in an effort to fill the staggering deficits in the nation's STEM educational pipeline.


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Bill Hughes is an instructor of Technology/Engineering at Park Forest Middle School (PFMS) in State College, PA. He also serves as the Integrated STEM/Department Chairperson. He can be reached at

Lynn Mona has a Masters of Education in Special Education and teaching certificates in Math, Biology, General Science, and Special Education. She taught Grades 5-12 for 15 years with a love for middle school students. She can be reached at

Greg Wilson graduated from California University of PA in 1984 with a BS in Industrial Arts/ Technology Education. He taught for 26 years in Penns Valley Area, SD and is now in his fifth year at State College Area School District. Greg is a TSA advisor and PATSA Region 8 Registrar.

Steve McAninch is a seventh-grade biology and earth science teacher at PFMS. A graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania, McAninch is in his 27th year of teaching and learning with students. He can be reached at

Jeff Seamans is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University in Industrial Arts Education and holds a Masters Degree from Wilkes University, Wilkes Barre, PA. He is currently an Instructor at Park Forest Middle School and adviser for the Park Forest Middle School TSA Chapter. He can be reached at

Heath Stout teaches seventh grade Life and Earth Science at PFMS. He began teaching at Park Forest 12 years ago after graduating from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at hrs14@scasd.ora.

Caption: Rocket Assembly with 3D Printed Fins.

Caption: Students checking adjustment of guidance pulleys on rocket.

Caption: Students measuring bottle cap with dial indicator.

Caption: Students lining up roller assemblies on rocket.
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Title Annotation:feature article
Author:Hughes, Bill; Mona, Lynn; Wilson, Greg; McAninch, Steve; Seamans, Jeff; Stout, Heath
Publication:Technology and Engineering Teacher
Date:Sep 1, 2017
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