‘Blast off’ with Waimea High algebra II class

Learning the practicality of math and science

by Keya Keita – The Garden Island

Waimea High School launches algebra II students into the exciting world of rocket science with the guidance of teacher Jerry Nishihira.

For five years, ninth- to 12th-graders taking algebra II have had an opportunity to put their math and science skills into a real-world application of rocket design, building, launching and recovery.

“Completely from scratch, using only minimal wood, packing tape, white glue and paper supplies, each of my students builds a fully functioning rocket,” Nishihira said. “It has to be perfect or it will crash and blow up. This teaches students to be accurate, exact, and precise – all important in the study of math and science.”

Nishihira conceived of the idea after a former HNLC grant recipient who had done studies with sugar cane left the school. “I wanted to design a study program that gave students the answer to that never-ending question: when will I ever use this stuff?”

The two-part design and build program is preceded by a simple model-rocket kit class, which the students launch from PMRF’s base on the Westside.

The military helps students launch and recover the model rockets.

After learning the basics from that experience, the students then begin a two-part program.

First they must create an initial design based on real rockets and have it approved via computer simulator.

Once the “generic” design is approved, each student creates their own variation on nose-cone design, wing-span and other elements.

The proposed design is plugged into the simulator again and every detail (down to the thickness and weight of material) is approved. Then the building begins.

Nishihira feels that students in his class benefit in the project’s practical application in math and prepares them for possible careers in engineering and science that they would never have considered before. “Many have gone into computers, some in medicine, and even a few have pursued aerospace studies. I can’t help but think, maybe this little project had something to do with that,” he said.

When the rockets are launched they each will be endowed with a full recovery system and hand-stuffed parachute.

Students are assigned to record the launch and flight data, including force, acceleration and flight time.

Students will compile this information, along with all mathematical calculations related to the study, into a final report to be turned in.

“We will see an average of 200-250 feet for height, with a ceiling at 320 feet,” explained Nishihira. “The fun part is there is no test launch. The parents of each student will be responsible for the actual setting of the launch and igniting of the equipment. It will be a moment that brings honor or disgrace to the whole family,” Nishihira teased.

“We invite the public to come see the blast off. The first rockets will launch at around 6:45 because so many kids have other activities that morning and also, just like the real rockets, early morning means less wind. This is something fun to watch and a way to support our kids,” Nishihira said.

“We’ve had a 99.9 percent success rate in the past. Only two rockets, that I can remember, failed in some way. But those were actually great learning experiences.”


Saturday, beginning at 7a.m. throughout the morning. Waimea High School field, next to the ball park.

All are invited.

• Keya Keita, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 or kkeita@kauaipubco.com.


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