Arts

Learning to Fly: Experimental Rocketry Class Takes Off

By Amy Reynolds, Communications Specialist
This article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Tower Hill Bulletin

“Five... four... three... two... one,” Kameron Inguito ‘18 yells right before he hits the launch button attached to the rocket he created in his Experimental Rocketry class. He’s been working on the rocket for months, focusing on its aesthetic appeal a bit more than the aerodynamics. Of course he hopes it takes off, too.
 
He and his classmates are set up in Rockford Park to test their projects for the first time, with Rockford Tower in the background. Inguito’s not sure how high the rocket will go—or if it’ll even go off—but he’s set an ambitious goal of the rocket soaring 500 feet into the air. 
 
“If it goes as high as the tower, I’d say that’s pretty successful,” Visual Art and Design Department Chair Richard Pierce, who teaches the class, said right before the launch. But if it doesn’t, that’s okay, too. It’s experimental rocketry, after all. The unknown is half the fun.
 
Once Inguito reaches the end of the countdown, the rocket shoots straight up into the air, flying high above Rockford Tower, before finally descending toward the ground and crashing near 19th Street. Even though the safe-recovery parachute didn’t go off, the rocket isn’t badly damaged. Inguito will be able to sand the nose cone and launch it again later, which is part of the purpose of the class—thinking of an idea, testing it and trying again if it doesn’t go exactly as planned.
 
“My favorite part of teaching this class is probably the unknown,” Pierce said. “These kids are developing designs and ideas that haven’t really been tested. It is called experimental rocketry, so I fully expect that not every rocket will perform exactly as expected.” 
 
The class started during the 2016-2017 school year, and although Experimental Rocketry had been offered as a club for middle schoolers, this was the first official Upper School class dedicated solely to the subject. About 10 students enrolled in the class, which was inspired by Pierce’s personal interest in developing designs and components from scratch.
 
For the most part, Pierce hands the reins over to his students so they can experiment and try things out themselves. There are certain aspects of the building and design, such as how the structures are actually made, what makes them durable and what makes them flightworthy, where he shares his expertise. But everything else he leaves for them to figure out on their own.
 
“My years of experience put me at a certain advantage, but that’s not necessarily an advantage I want to pass along to my students. I had to figure out much of how things work just by doing it, and that’s something I really want to impart to them as well,” Pierce said. “I give them guidance when I can, but most of these guys are pretty self-directed learners and they’re here to perform an experiment, so they have to set it up to their own terms and work out the different design challenges on their own.”
 
In the class, the students learn a myriad of different skills, including woodworking, physics, aerodynamics and even art, and learning how to do things cross-divisionally has value in it, Pierce said.

“In order to be successful, they’re going to have to incorporate ideas from many different areas in real life. There’s more to it than just the actual building,” Pierce said. “Certainly that’s the way real life operates. To be successful at any one job you have to incorporate aspects of many different things.”
 
The ability to work on a long-term project is also a skill gained in the class.
 
“There are many things to think about when constructing these vehicles,” Pierce said. “Oftentimes students will work themselves into a corner, and they have to change or modify their vehicle on the fly. So the ability to adapt to the challenges as they come across them is a huge part of this class. Learning how to work on a long-term project and meet daily goals to get to the final outcome is something that’s vitally important to this kind of class.”
 
For Sabrina Luther ‘17, Experimental Rocketry was unlike any other class she had taken at Tower Hill.
 
“In all of my academic classes, you just try to always get the right answer, and when I go to Mr. Pierce and ask if my rocket’s going to work, he says it’s an experiment and that you have to try it out and see,” Luther said. “It’s just kind of a new concept to me, but overall, it’s been so much fun.”
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