Monday, May 28, 2012

Unit Study Centering on Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam

One of my favorite books to share with my Middle Schoolers was Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam.  Because of the fact that I specialized in teaching twice exceptional kids for the last three years of my career in Middle School science, I found it especially rewarding when I got to share it in a small group setting.  My favorite go around was with a group of 12 boys that especially liked the part where the Rocket Boys blow up a fence.

What is so wonderful about this book is that it is so rich with character, history and science.  I was able to allow my classes to delve into all things rockets (science) and any part of the book that included trial and error - that was for the science classroom.  My wonderful co-conspirators in engaging kids in learning, the English teacher and the History teacher, enjoyed picking apart the book with me and laying claim to certain passages for their classrooms as well.  The math teacher also enjoyed her hands-on trigonometry to help them ascertain how high their rockets had went after we had our "blast day".

I have to warn this is a HUGE topic and the unit took a lot of time out of the school year - we spent five  weeks on it!  However, it was efficient learning because they were completely engrossed in the project, practicing learning how to learn, using real life application and being exposed to tons of information they will not forget all at the same time.  If you look, you will realize that two major science topics were covered in those five weeks as well as a lot of technological history most kids don't get.

Sub-topics to which the book closely relates:

Literature: To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what the kids did in their English class specifically related to the book.  They did do a lot of writing and practiced their grammar and editing skills within their own writing assignments.  They also did some character and plot analysis.  I'm sure they discussed a number of themes within the story and learned a number of vocabulary words.  In particular, I remember catalyst being one of those important vocabulary words that was discussed in all three classrooms.  I'm sure in English they were identifying catalysts in the boy's lives.  In History, they discussed watershed events as catalysts for changes in society and in science we discussed it as a chemical term as well as its relation technological development and historical developments.  Here are some resources for ideas about discussion questions, essay questions, tests other teachers have used and a vocabulary list created by teachers in Coalwood.

Interested in an author study?
Discussion Questions:
Vocabulary List:
see below for many more ideas.

Obviously the historic center of the book is about the launching of sputnik and the most direct relationship is to the part of history we refer to as the "Space Race".  There is a host of information, videos, activities, books etc. about this era as well as about World War II and the many factors that led up to the space race.  To truly understand the fear faced by the population during the 1950's and 60's kids will have to understand about the nuclear threat as well - hence the relationship to nuclear technology listed in the science portion of this article.

Cold War Ideas and info:

Specific to the Space Race:

Make sure to take a look at Discovery Channel's "When We Left Earth" narrated by Gary Sinise.  Great Documentary done in six episodes.  Of course, if you really want to get into it there are plenty more movies out there - even The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 can easily tie in.

Although some of the math was more advanced than the kids would normally have done, the math teacher did work with them just before and after launch day to help them understand the math involved in figuring out how high the rockets had soared.


The Obvious: 
Aerodynamics, Rocketry-related chemistry and the scientific method.  Unfortunately for us, we were in a high fire hazard area so doing combustion rockets was out of the question so they also learned about pressure, force and motion while we built bottle rockets.  It was easy to relate the scientific method.  As they read, the kids had to keep a "journal" of questions, hypotheses and the related trials and errors the boys made.  They saw first hand how each experiment led to more questions and more experimentation.  We related this to other science lessons we'd learned through the year in discussions, essay questions, and in their own experimentation throughout the unit.
Combustable liquid bottle rocket:

The Less Obvious:
Mining and Coal Production.  Before starting in on rocketry, we did spend about a week on mining in general.  They largely get the basics in minerals in Earth Science in sixth grade, but rarely do kids really spend any time learning about mining.  Each kid chose a type of mineral and did a short report on the production process for that mineral and how we use it.  I also had them do "cookie mining", and we listened to "Allentown" by Billy Joel.  The lyrics were broken down in English class for their poetic value as well as to compare and relate the tale told in the song to what was happening in Coalwood in the latter half of the 1950's.

The Even less Obvious:
Nuclear Technology - just because of time constraints I separated this into a different unit, but made sure it was fully covered before we did Rocket Boys so if a quick review was needed, it could easily be included.

Please Check Out the Book "Ten Things All Future Mathematicians and Scientists should Know" by Zaccaro if you can find it.  I incorporated the lesson on the Challenger within the unit as well.  It really stresses the importance of communicating findings and listening to the results of those findings before moving forward in a way kids relate to.  Its a good book anyway.

This website has a host of ideas with explicit instructions about how to do each.  The lessons included here are all related to the book or movie and either Science and Math, History or English.  These are not my lesson plans, so I have not tried them all, nor have I even reviewed them all, but options even range in age starting from 4th grade through tenth grade.  I personally can't imagine even an advanced reader fully enjoying this book in fourth grade mainly because it is a coming of age story, but every kid is different and it is a fabulous novel.

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