The Water Bottle Rocket Project
The pursuit of cognitive abilities
Each year students in my physical science classes at Streamwood High School utilize a Pitsco Water Bottle Rocket launcher to culminate a unit in physics on kinematics. Launching water bottle rockets provide great opportunities for students to apply knowledge and understanding in physics and critically assess the motion of moving objects.
Students’ critical thinking skills are tested as they take on the challenge of investigating how chosen fin designs will impact the flight performance of water bottle rockets. This design challenge allows students to creatively influence the engineering of rockets. It is a curriculum initiative that is not only engaging with the students both physically and emotionally, but it also positively influences their intrinsic motivation to learn.
This project allows students to develop their own brainstorm ideas, work cooperatively with fellow students to bring to fruition the testing of experimental designs and take pride in efforts put forth to solve problems. Students are able to evaluate experimental observations, diagnose evidence in support of their hypothesis and eventually make judgement as to the superiority of one fin design over another.
I believe that a project such as the one detailed above is the means by which teachers can introduce to their students a curriculum focused upon cognitive abilities. Students are given time to think about the process of investigation, critically assess the methodology employed in testing and keeping in mind why they are pursuing these goals that merit their efforts.
Roger Schank, Professor Emeritus and founder of the renowned Institute for the Learning Science at Northwestern University, writes in his book Teaching Minds, “Intelligence can be enhanced by practicing the cognitive processes that are the basis of intelligent behavior and intelligent reasoning.” He continues this descriptive venue by further writing, “Intelligence is the ability to diagnose well, to plan well, and to be understand what causes what. To do this one must be able to reassess one’s belief system when new evidence is presented and one must be able to explain one’s reasoning clearly to those who ask. And, one must have a knowledge base of relevant information to draw upon.”
Twenty first century learning is about meeting and improving the mindset students bring into the classroom. Students become good at performing these cognitive processes which are life skills. The fundamental cognitive processes such as, diagnoses, causation, planning, prediction and judgement need to be mastered. Therefore, a teacher’s mission should be to facilitate repeated opportunities in school helping students develop cognitive abilities and skills within each student and increasing their abilities to make evidence-based judgement that are supported by experimentation and validate hypotheses. These are cognitive abilities that evolve into essential life skills.