El Chris Teaches America’s Future to Shoot Rockets

A few years back, I worked full-time for the Boy Scouts in their scoutreach program. My job was pretty simple.

1. Bring scouting to inner-city and at-risk kids who don’t get exposed to it, and

2. Be the coolest guy that these kids know.

I was assigned to work at an elementary school in Maplewood, Minnesota. I was also told that it would be a 3-week course on rocketry. Instead of winging it, I sat down and wrote this. When I got there, I introduced myself as Double Agent Barracuda and informed the boys that I was at the wrong school and none of them “had clearance” to hear what I had to say. They were immediately hooked. I let them beg for a few minutes, then “conceded” and taught them rocketry. It. Was. AWESOME. They were attentive, they were enthusiastic, and they had FUN. I even ended up convincing them all to come to Polar Cubs.

Anyway, here’s the syllabus I wrote and followed. The only thing that’s changed since then is that I’ve learned how to make my own bicycle pump-powered rockets. They’re SUPREMELY cheap and insanely fun.

Once again, anybody is welcome to use this as long as you’re not being paid. Use it, change it, give me feedback, and love it. Just don’t profit from it.

Three week (or 3 day) rocket program:

Day 1: 60-90 minutes.

What are rockets, what do they do, and how do they work?
Balls (three or four soccer, tennis, raquet, or whatever)

White board or easel with paper, markers

2 or 3 pieces of 8.5″x11″ paper for each student

Paper clips

Washable markers or crayons

Jolly Ranchers or other small bribes.
Instructions on how to make a paper airplane of the instructor’s
choosing from the Internet.

Estes air pump rocket kits from hobby shop (these cost 40-80 dollars, so be warned, but they have about 20 rockets inside)


Homemade PVC/Pop bottle rocket launchers

1. Introduction: 15 minutes.
Introduce yourself. Play name game. Sit in a circle and say your name.
Throw the ball to another student and say their name. Student must say his or her name, then say the name of another student to whom he or she throws the ball. Continue in the same order, with each student
throwing a ball to the same student each time, until all students feel comfortable with the pattern. Then introduce another ball, and then another. Then change the order and begin again.

2. Make airplanes. 30-45 minutes.
Return to tables. Talk about the different ways that things fly. Maybe touch lightly on how propulsion works. Talk about how throwing something will propel it but not for very long, and rocket and jet fuel burns to give something more propulsion. Maybe discuss Newton’s laws if audience is slightly older.
Give each student several pieces of paper and tell them we are going to decorate them and make airplanes out of them. Give them markers,
and then give them 15 minutes to decorate. After decorating them, show
them how to make a basic paper airplane with ONE of their pieces of paper. Go to the gym and have a throwing contest to see whose airplane
can go the farthest. Have the students add paperclips to their airplanes and see how they fly differently. Return to the tables and discuss what could make the planes go faster and have students build
another plane. At this point, the instructor may use discretion on whether or not to show the students how to make a different, more advanced paper airplane. Alternately, the instructor may also show the
students how to add wingflaps/rudders to their planes. Return to the gym and have another contest. Give Jolly Ranchers to winners.


15 minutes: Play Rockets across the sky in the gym. This game is identical to ships across the ocean except the students are rockets and the boy who is “it” is an asteroid. The people who are it shout “1, 2, 3, ROCKETS ACROSS THE SKY!!!” and then they must tag the “rockets” to turn them into asteroids, who are then also it.

4. Make Rockets (using remaining balance of time): Give each student a rocket and have
them decorate it. There are rockets and stickers in the kit, but the stickers require someone to cut them apart. The instructor may do this beforehand or have the students do it. Go outside and launch rockets.
Have students count down, maybe let a responsible student operate the launcher. ONLY THE INSTRUCTOR should operate the pump as students tend
to shear the pump apart since it’s made of cheap plastic.

Let’s make more rockets!


String (thinner, strong cotton string is fine)
Duct tape (NOT masking tape, it won’t stick well enough to the walls)
Balloons (both long AND round ones)
Rockets from previous week
Jolly Ranchers or other bribes.

1. (15-20 minutes) Play rockets across the sky.

2. (15 minutes) *Optional* Have students make another paper airplane,
similar to the one from the previous meeting. Have them write their names on the wings. Have the students line up in the gym as if they were playing “rockets across the sky” but make sure they have their
airplanes. When they say “rockets across the sky” have them throw their airplanes. Have the student who is “it” try to catch a plane in the air. If a student’s plane is caught, then he or she also becomes “it”.

3. (5 minutes) Briefly recap the concepts of thrust and propulsion
from the previous week.

4. (30 minutes) Have students decorate balloons and tell them that
they’re going to have a rocket derby. Follow the instructions at Science Bob. Make a “racetrack” by duct taping one end of the string to the wall and stretching it out about 20 feet.. Have the students line up and race each other. Leave one end of
the string loose so that the students can put their own rockets on
them and hold the string as they race.

5. (5 minutes) Review concepts of thrust one more time, present winners with
pre-made certificates or prizes.

6. (remaining time) Launch rockets from previous weeks.

Day Three:

An empty, 16 ounce, plastic soda or water bottle for each student.
A cork that tightly fits the soda bottle. If you can’t find a cork that fits, you might want to wrap it in tape.
paper towels
toilet paper
lemon juice
baking soda
other acids, like cola, or vinegar
safety glasses


2. (5 minutes) Review thrust, propulsion, rockets, Newton, etc…

Steps 3 and 4 may be both done in the same day or may be done separately. Use your best judgement for time. Both can (and probably will, since we’re dealing with Cubs) make a mess, so launch them OUTSIDE.

3. (30-45 minutes) Make lemon juice rockets. Launch them OUTSIDE.

4.  (30-45 minutes) Make film canister rockets and launch them OUTSIDE.

5. Shoot hobby store/homemade rockets with remaining time

Author: El Chris

I'm full of snark that doesn't always come out. I have a soft spot for kids and people with special needs. I'm a disability advocate by day, and a coffee roasting photographer by night. You'll love me, but your parents will love me more.

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