Physics can be really intimidating and dry for kids. It is also one of the most exciting areas of study, and well worth putting in the time to learn some basic physics principles. But kids usually need a kick in the pants for something to really spark their attention, and when you’re talking about the science responsible for launching rockets into space, you have some great options. Today I am going to talk about a cool project that can get kids interested in physics using minimal materials that are easy to acquire.

I found this lesson on the European Space Camp in Norway’s website. The premise of the project is to build a paper rocket that the students can then launch. Abstract formulas that talk about velocity, distance, time, and acceleration suddenly seem less abstract. Even complex ideas like the laws of aerodynamics can be visualized through a task like this. Plus, you’re launching something. That’s just cool. And you can set up competitions for innovative design, distance, height, or anything else you want to get kids excited about.

Talk about ways to minimize air resistance before letting students start assembling their rockets. Explain how the design can add or decrease drag and allow the rocket to go faster, higher, or farther.

For the launcher, you need either PVC or metal pipes and a small, portable air compressor. You can find instructions here in PDF form because it will be helpful to have a clear list when you get to the hardware store. This part is best done by an adult who has experience with tools and air compressors.

To make the paper rockets, you need:

  • Standard A4 works great. Two pieces per rocket.
  • They just have to cut paper, so if you are working with little kids, safety scissors are fine.
  • Adhesive tape.
  • Putty or Plasticine.

Building the rocket:

  1. Roll one piece of the paper into a cylinder. Seal one end with tape. This will be the front of your rocket. Blow into it to make sure it is airtight.
  2. From the other piece of paper, cut out a circle 7 1/2 cm in diameter. Then cut out a section approximately 90 degrees from the circle. Roll the remaining piece into a cone shape. Put a small ball of putty inside the tip of the cone, then tape it to the sealed end of the rocket body you made in step 1.
  3. Cut four paper triangles of exactly the same size, folding one side of each to create flaps. Tape the flaps to the rocket.
  4. Note that the rockets will likely be one-and-done as far as launches go, as the landing tends to damage the nose.

Please be safe when launching the rockets. Pay attention to the pressure ratings of the materials you use, and please do not exceed them. Keep people away from the takeoff area when you are ready to launch. Wear eye protection and inspect the launcher to be sure everything is in good condition before using.

If you want some great equations to work with your kids on, check out the “follow-up” section of the Space Camp’s page here. If you have your students take some simple measurements prior to launch (the length of the rocket body, the interior diameter of the launch tube, the air pressure of the launcher with the valve closed, the mass of the rocket, and the angle of elevation), they can actually work out things like initial velocity and acceleration. It is a great way for kids to see physics concepts up close and at work.

Let me know if you take this one on, and if so, what the results are!