Goals Taking Flight: Motivating Students Using Model Rocketry

Model Rocket taking flight over Kingsborough Community College, Brooklyn, NY. Photo credit George J Hill

In my Freshman Seminar course, my students learn all about the skills they need to be successful in college. But sometimes, it’s not enough to simply learn how to take good notes, manage your time, use the college library, etc. Sometimes, you need to think about why you need these skills.

Ultimately, college students have a purpose for enrolling in college. That purpose may be to get a better job, to become more educated, or to meet friends. Whatever it is, there is a goal that students have in mind when they enroll in college. Invariably, challenges arise that affect if a student reaches that goal.

Best Ways to Motivate Students Using Rocketry

View of Brooklyn NY from model rocket with parachute. Photo credit George J Hill

For example, if a student’s goal is to become a Registered Nurse, one of the challenges might be studying so that they get a good grade in Anatomy and Physiology. Perhaps other life obligations, such as a job or caring for a family, might make finding time to study for Anatomy and Physiology challenging.

When a student gets so focused on the challenges in the way of achieving their goal, it’s easy for them to get discouraged. It may feel like they’ll never get there, because they have so many challenges to face, so many obstacles to overcome.

Sometimes, a student needs a little motivation, a reminder that they need to lift their eyes up to their goal. A really fun motivational exercise I do with my class involves talking about student goals, their challenges, and rockets.

I begin by passing out an index card to each student. I ask them to think of a goal they have. It could be a professional goal, an educational goal, or a personal goal. Some examples of goals could include becoming an engineer, starting a business, playing professional baseball, getting married, passing a course, buying a house, or moving through remedial courses.

On their index card, I ask them to write their goal, and then 3 of the obstacles that get in the way of them reaching their goals. I then collect the index cards. I read them after class, and I use them as a guide to how I can help my students succeed. Perhaps an obstacle to the student’s goal is that they need extra help in studying Math, and so I know that I can refer them to the Math lab. Perhaps they write that their families aren’t particularly supportive of them being in college, and so I know they may need a bit more encouragement from me and their other professors.

Best Ways to Motivate Students Using Rocketry

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Once I collect the index cards, I give the students a model rocket, and I ask them to write their goal on the side of it. We then go out and launch the rocket, so the students can symbolically see their goals take flight. The obstacles on the index card are still on the ground, but the goal is flying.

An important distinction to make is that these are not fireworks. A firework is designed to go up a few hundred feet and explode. (I don’t think the symbolism of a student’s goal catastrophically exploding is particularly motivational.) A model rocket is designed to go up a few hundred feet, then deploy a parachute or streamer so that it gently falls back to earth and can be reused. This means that it’s possible to do this project semester after semester without spending too much money after the initial semester.

Once we made the initial purchase of the rockets and launch pad/controller, all we had to do to keep the project going was buy the engines each semester, and a few rockets to replace the ones that ended up landing in trees or in the Atlantic Ocean. (Our campus is right on the coast, and we even have a beach on campus!)

I have done this project two ways: either each student gets to fly their own small rocket, or the whole class flies one big rocket. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

I found that using one big rocket, like Estes’ Mean Machine, can foster a greater sense of community among the class. It’s nice to see that not only your goals take flight, but also your classmates’ goals do too. It also looks more impressive in flight, and one launch certainly takes less time than 20. However, giving each student the opportunity to launch their own rocket means that each student has an opportunity to do something outside their everyday experience, and that’s more fun.

It gives them the chance to have what I call the “I fell out of a tree” face.

I call it that because of something that happened the second or third time I did this project.

Best Ways to Motivate Students Using Rocketry

View of Kingsborough Community College, Brooklyn, NY, from model rocket