Part of middle school science class really is rocket science!

rocket launch

Luke Baker, a St. Andrew’s seventh grader, launches his rocket as Dan Grelinger looks on. (Joe Cory/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

GLADSTONE — The weather had been iffy for several days, with off and on thunderstorms, so on May 23, students and teachers at St. Andrew the Apostle School waited anxiously for the afternoon forecasts. Much to their relief, the skies turned blue and calm and the temperature rose. The students in Wendy McKellar’s seventh grade science class couldn’t wait to get outside and launch their handmade, decorated rockets.

Once outside, with younger students cheering them on, the seventh graders gathered around veteran rocket launcher, Dan Grelinger, who had worked with the class, teaching them about rockets and helping build them. He had also worked with the eighth graders, whose rocket launch was May 10.

McKellar called out the names of three students who would be the first to launch their rockets. Each of the 18 rockets was decorated and personalized — pink and silver glitter; red, white and blue paint; red and green or solid blue.

Grelinger said as he looked around the launching area, “Girls naturally aren’t so interested in things that fly and have fire associated with them as boys are, but when it comes to painting and decorating, they are on it!”

Rockets lowered onto their launchers, thumbs on ignition buttons, the countdown began:

Five, four, three, two, one … Whoosh! A glittering pink and silver rocket shot high into the air, so high it was hard to pick it out until its parachute opened and it began to float gently towards earth again. “Way to go, Jenna!” chorused several of her classmates.

One after another, the countdown gave way to Whoosh! and rockets shot into the air. Grelinger said that a key criterion toward success in the class was to launch and recover the undamaged rocket. Thus, for the first round of launches, all the students were restricted to ½ A and A size engines, which achieve lower altitudes and ensure they are recovered.

For the second round, the students were allowed to choose A, B or C size engines. When launched, the rockets shot straight up into the clouds, causing students and passersby to shade their eyes and tilt their heads far back to try and locate them. One came to rest in a tree, another on the far northeast side of the school. A few more may turn up in a few days. The majority came down gently, with boys racing after them to try and snag them before they touched down.

Grelinger said he has been teaching the rocket science component of the seventh and eighth grade science classes for three years. His interest in rockets sparked when he attended camp in central Kansas the summer he was 11. “I found a few Estes model rockets in a trash can from a camp the previous week. I was very interested in them and my mother gave me an Estes starter launch set with two rocket kits the following Christmas.” He was hooked.

“It soon became my favorite hobby,” he said, “and I built and launched as many rockets as I could afford while growing up, even building and launching into my first year of college.” He built and launched about 25 rockets during those years.

Grelinger attended the University of Kansas, earning a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. His first job out of college was in Lee’s Summit and while there, he taught a model rocketry science module for fifth and sixth graders at Our Lady of the Presentation School. Later, while living in Dallas, he became interested in rocketry again, and built and launched a few more rockets. By 2008, his oldest daughter was in seventh grade, and the family had returned to Kansas City. Grelinger approached her teacher and offered to teach a module of model rocketry to the science class.

That was three years ago. Last year the seventh and eighth grade classes combined for the rocketry component. Grelinger and Wendy McKellar, who joined the teaching staff at St. Andrew’s in 2010, designed a model rocketry section for the eighth graders that was a little more advanced than the seventh grade section. The students are assessed a $12-16 fee for the rocket kits, engines, supplies and paints, which McKellar said parents were very willing to pay.

Both grade levels had six classes for instruction and rocket building. Grelinger lectured on applications of rockets, including weather communication and environmental satellites, GPS satellites, research and exploration satellites, intelligence satellites and weapons delivery. Basic rocket systems (Propulsion, Ignition, Guidance and Recovery) were covered. He lectured on aerodynamics (center of gravity, center of pressure, thrust, drag and aerodynamic stability). He introduced the students to Newton’s Laws of Motion, and rocket engine fundamentals, including chemistry, fuel, oxidizers, ignition and nozzles. They learned something about electricity as it applied to launching the engines, and how to use trigonometry to measure altitudes of model rocket flights. The second half of each class was spent building the balsa wood rockets, and the final two classes were for painting and decorating, as well as catching up on anything they missed.

McKellar said the importance of paying attention and following instructions was emphasized in addition to basic model rocketry. “If you don’t pay attention and follow directions, your rocket may not launch, or worse, crash during the launch. No student wants that to happen!”

Grelinger said the seventh graders had requested the advanced component for next year.

The last weeks of school saw the launching of many rockets. On May 20, third graders at St. Charles Borromeo School in Kansas City also turned part of their school grounds into Cape St. Charles launching pad.


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September 27, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph