Mark Kibler teaches science at Weare Middle School. The science class is deceptive, because Kibler is teaching rocket science to 8th graders, students just beginning to sneer at the magic of flying through space. And yet, in a class of 20 students, nearly all shoot up their hand at every question, totally focused on the process and the project.
Kibler is teaching about thermal protection systems, otherwise known as heat shields. On this 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, he is helping his students understand the design challenges faced by engineers as they continue to launch the space shuttle. The levels of learning in this class are multiple and difficult for a non-teacher to keep track of. Besides the science, there is a procedure to follow, data collection and results to track, and the students are instructed to maintain “radio silence” to prevent a mistaken signal sent to the “launch team.”
Each student has created a rocket prototype with a set of heat shields crafted out of copper plate and other conducive metal sheets. The subject matter is serious and so is Kibler, but he understands the power of an entertaining lecture. Putting on some pop music, he explains to his students, “This is not a trial and error experiment.” Each rocket has a paper capsule that represents the astronauts, and the goal is to get them safely home in the 4 minutes before the music ends. Failure is not an option. Adding to the stressful atmosphere is a film clip from the movie Apollo 13, lending an authentic air to the background noise. Every last student buys into the reality of the project, with a dozen stating that they will at least learn “something, if my rocket burns up.” Aaron Barkasy is one of 2 students confident they will succeed. “If you have confidence then you pretty much believe in what you are doing.” Not so cocky, Bre O’Donal counters, “You only have 4 minutes- make sure you are able to land.”
Of three rockets launched that morning, only one is successful. Chris Arris and Aaron Hodgdon succeed in keeping their rocket from bursting into flames, and are shyly proud. “We picked sheet metal with the copper, “ explains Hodgdon. “It conducts heat differently.”
Kibler finishes the class obviously pleased with the results and the level of enthusiasm. A class full of 8th graders stayed on topic, were respectful of each other, delivered strong, if fiery, results, and seemed to enjoy the learning process. Mission accomplished.