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Helping Kids in 4H
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By Todd Mullin

EMRR 2008 Challenge Youth Participation

It was the late summer of 2006 when my daughter Sarah signed up for 4H to get involved in the animal raising groups. A few weeks later, after one of the community meetings, my wife let me know that she had signed Sarah up for the new 4H rocketry group and I was going to go too. Rockets?!? Well… Okay, twist my arm.

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The rocketry group was being led by an engineer who worked for Lockheed Martin! However, unlike my background with model and high power rocketry, the 4H group was building water rockets from soda bottles. I eagerly dug into this new style of rockets, but with only limited success. I enjoyed learning the techniques of water rocketry, but not as much as the rocketry of my background, so I introduced the group to model rocketry!

The first year, the rocketry group was lead by James and had three youth participants and me. James agreed to introduce the use of model rocketry to the group as a means to increase interest in the rocketry group.

The second year was my first year as co-leader of the 4H rocketry group. We had put the word out and attracted many more children to come and learn about rockets. As opposed to just turning the kids loose with kits, James and I started out our year with a series of lectures to inform the kids about the basics of rocketry. After three lessons with questions and answers, videos and slideshows, and piles and piles of rockets the kids were eager to get to building. More than half the group decided to build model rockets instead of the water rockets. We had a building session once a month for a few months until all the kids had rockets ready to launch. The kids were very excited the day of the launch and burned many, many motors. James and I then repeated the cycle of building and launching again and had one final launch before the end of the year came.

Now, we have entered our third year. My daughter decided that she didn't want to participate anymore, but I felt that the group still needed my help. This year we had 15 kids sign up before our first meeting! Our first two meetings were again lecture meetings. Our group was lucky enough to be able to reserve a lecture room at one of our local libraries. Since we would be using it for educational purposes and had the backing of 4H, we were able to get the room at no charge! The lecture room came complete, not only with tables and chairs, but with a video projector and screen as well.

James taught the first meeting, telling the kids about water bottle rockets and the basics of the physics of rocketry. For the second lecture, I reviewed the physics that James had taught the first meeting and then started into the basics of model rocketry. I went over the parts of a model rocket and the sequence of flight with model rocket motors. Next, using data from Rocksim, we discussed what variations in model rockets result in the most aerodynamic designs. The kids enjoyed guessing which nose and fin shapes resulted in the rocket going the highest.

After that exercise, I explained to the children about the different types of recovery and demonstrated each! While the kids liked the nosecone with a parachute and the paper aerobraking Art Applewhite Qubit falling from above them, they were thrilled by the glide and helicopter recovery demonstrations!

I had a quick discussion with the kids and their parents about what types of kits that would be good for the different age groups within the group and made recommendations about where to purchase them. I finished out the lecture by showing videos of high power launches from LDRS and Plaster Blaster.

After a couple weeks of e-mails with the parents of the kids, we decided on which kits for the kids to start with. The kits that the kids were attracted to were as varied as they were. While I knew that this was going to make my job of supervising construction much more difficult, it would help the kids enjoy their experience more. The good news was that by ordering all of the kits together, we got a great group discount from's "Virtual Vendor" program! As a group leader, I would highly recommend going this route. Many vendors have group and educational program discounts, so by doing a little shopping around you can save your kids and their parents some money. Not everyone chose to take advantage of the group order. Several families decided to patronize local brick and mortar hobby stores.

All of the kits we had ordered arrived in a large box and my excitement level began to rise again. Nothing brings out the kid in a rocketeer like the promise of tearing open a new batch of kits. I gathered the needed supplies over the next couple of weeks. I purchased tubes of Elmers yellow carpenter's glue, a bottle of Zap-a-gap CA, tubs of Elmer's wood putty, a few hobby knives, pairs of scissors, a couple of cans of Kilz primer and a variety of colors of spray paint.

The morning of our first building session had finally arrived. As the library frowned upon the potential mess that building rockets might cause in their lecture hall, we met in my garage. By setting up a several folding tables we had plenty of room for everyone to work. James and I were planning on splitting the supervisory duties up to our own specialties. He was going to help the younger children construct two liter bottle water rockets. I would help the older children and their parents with the model rocket kits.

After three years of building and flying the water rockets, not only with 4H, but with other youth groups, James has refined their construction to a science. He arrived that morning with a brand new set of fin jigs that he had whipped up to make it even easier to build a bottle rocket. He had also refined the design of the launcher so that it was easier to use and was more reliable. He had also decided to remove one of the variables that had slowed down construction of previous years. He had pre-cut several different sets of plywood fins for the children to choose from as opposed to letting them spend several hours doodling fin shapes as they had in previous years.

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This year, there were only two children who's parents thought it would be best if they started with the water rockets. Both Lauren and Keely were the youngest of the group and would definitely benefit from learning construction techniques from James and working with the much more forgiving water rockets first. They each selected their fins and attached them to the two liter bottles with silicone adhesive. Using the fin jigs made it much easier for them to get their fins positioned well with the help of James and Lauren's father Bill. This was as far as the girls made it during their first build session and since they were the youngest of the group, this was also the limit of their attention span. Conveniently, this allowed the adhesive on the fins to cure over the time until the next meeting.

At the same time as the water rockets were being constructed, I ran laps around my garage preventing as many missteps as possible with the older kids and their parents. Triston and his father had selected an Estes Nova Payloader as their kit. The two sisters, Ellen and Margaux, were going to construct a couple of Fliskits Rhino kits that I had recommended for them with their father, Chris. Keely's older sister, Erin would also be constructing a Rhino with the help of her mother, Megan. Lauren's older sister, Emily had selected a Quest Pipsqueak for her rocket. That was the extent of my rookie builders.

My returning veterans, with a year of construction under their belts, were James' daughter Victoria, the two brothers Sam and Douglas with their mother Kim, and Anthony and his mother Lucia. Victoria has a great interest in airplanes and had selected two very challenging kits for herself, the Estes Blackbird and Eagle. Sam had brought his Estes 36D-Squared from the previous year for repair as well as a new Quest X-15 kit. Douglas had a new Estes Hi-Flyer and Anthony had decided upon a Semroc Oso as his kit of choice.

By now you must be a bit confused with all of those names. I was too as I am a bit slow putting names and faces together! While I had given the children the lectures the previous months, it was finally sinking in who was who after I finally got to interacting with them in building their kits. I was fortunate to have the assistance of my veterans with the new kids and their parents. They were an invaluable resource and the build session would not have gone half as smoothly without them.

As each of the kids was building a different kit, it was not as simple as leading a group build where I could tell each one to do the same thing at the same time. Luckily, the arrival of each child/parent team was a bit staggered, so I could make the rounds and get each started on a task before moving on the the next. As each arrived, I gave them their kit if they didn't already have it. I had them open their kits and check to make sure that all of the parts were present and accounted for and in good condition. Of the bunch, we had only one problem. A somewhat kinked body tube was easily swapped out from my scratch building pile of parts and we were off to the races!

With each parent supervising, the kids started out building their motor mounts. Most had little problem figuring out this step. I roamed around giving advice and producing supplies and equipment as needed. As Emily's dad was working with his younger daughter with the water rockets, I acted as her primary guidance in construction of her Pipsqueak.

After the motor mounts were assembled, they were set aside to dry and the group set forth cutting out fins. While most of the kits had laser cut fins which were easily trimmed from their balsa carriers, the Fliskits Rhinos offered an additional attraction to their builders. The Rhino being a fairly large and stable rocket allows the builder to customize the number and shape of the fins. Only one of my students, Margaux, decided to go with the stock fin pattern with 4 fins. Both of the other two Rhino builders, Ellen and Erin, decided to trim their fins to the provided elliptical pattern. After the fins had been shaped to the children's personal taste, they all sanded them to an airfoil.

This construction was the extent of our first build session as our time expired. The kids were all very excited about the progress they had made, and one or two had even taken their kits home to work on them as well.

The next build session was scheduled a month later. James and his two water bottle racketeers were able to complete their rockets by adding a parachute compartment and a large parachute to their models. The parachutes were cut from large plastic trash bags and shroud lines were cut and tied around the perimeter. A nose cone shroud was either cut and rolled from poster board or the rounded end of another two liter bottle. The water bottle racketeers were ready to launch by the end of this meeting!

The model rocketeers were not quite as far along as their construction was not as simplified as their counterparts. Several of the children had other commitments and could not attend this session. Emily, Triston, Sam, Douglas and Victoria all made great progress on their kits. Each managed to complete construction of their rocket during this session. With the smaller group of students, it was easier for me to spend a bit more time with each child and give them a bit more individualized attention.

The third building session was scheduled over winter recess and thus was very poorly attended. James and his water rocketeer, Lauren and her dad and sister went to a local park and spent several hours launching her water rocket until they had used up the five gallons of "rocket fuel" they had taken.

The only two model rocketeers that attended were the two sisters, Ellen and Margaux, who had missed the previous session. This allowed them to get caught up by getting direct help from either their dad or me. They completed both of their Rhinos and took them home to finish the priming and painting as they had time. Towards the end of the session Anthony and his mother showed up and completed his Semroc Oso after a few hours of work.

After a few more impromptu building sessions, the rest of the kids managed to finish their kits and we were ready to launch! Luckily for our little group, San Diego's DART, NAR section #317, frequently hosts youth groups at their launches. DART was more than happy to allow us to use their field and launch equipment. I was the first to arrive at the launch site, followed shortly by Triston and his dad. We had to wait only a short while before the president of DART arrived with the key to the launch field gate. Erin and Keely were the next to arrive with their family and a bunch of their friends who wanted to see the launch as well! As we set up the launch gear and got ready to launch, Ellen and Margaux got to the field. Emily, Lauren, James, Victoria, Anthony and his parents straggled in after a bit.

The kids had brought their rockets and motors and after a quick safety talk were ready to fly! They all picked up the routine for launching quickly and burnt quite a few motors that morning. They all got a kick out of the high power launches, as well as the helicopter and glide recovery models. All of the youth participants showed a great deal of respect for the club procedures and were so excited about flying their rockets!

James had brought the water 2 liter bottle rocket launcher so he put on a demonstration for the club about flying the water rockets. Keely was very excited to be flying her water rocket again, this time with an audience!

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For our next meeting, we will start our building cycle over again! We will repair the rockets that got damaged in flight and talk about how to make our rockets even better. I have committed to at least one more year of leading the rocketry group. I hope that the kids enjoy learning about science and rocketry as much as I enjoy teaching them!

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