Riverhead Freshmen tackling Regents physics have a blast with rocket science

Riverhead High School is turning out some fresh-faced rocket scientists, literally. Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation and Adelphi University, about 43 freshmen students are now taking Regents physics courses, a class normally reserved for juniors and seniors. And on Friday, the freshmen were building rockets at the Long Island Science Center in downtown Riverhead.
“Basically, what we’re trying to do is set the hook,” said science teacher Greg Wallace. If kids get interested in science at an earlier age, they’ll be in a better position to go further in science during their high school years, he said. And showing them the practical applications of physics through fun activities like building rockets, as well as entering them in a “Rube Goldberg” competition, makes kids more likely to develop an interest in science, he said.
On Friday, each student was given the same basic materials to use in creating a rocket: a cardboard tube, a plastic nose cone, two balsa wood fins, glue, scissors, sandpaper, tape and, of course, instructions. Mr. Wallace said students will launch their rockets at the high school Monday, Nov. 22, when they will also receive the final key ingredient: a solid rocket booster that goes in the tail end of the rocket.
“These can go 200 to 300 feet in the air,” the teacher said.
The students will use trigonometry to determine how high their rockets went and will apply the principles of gravity and motion to determine how fast their rockets were moving, Mr. Wallace said.
“It’s really fun, but it can be really challenging, too, because it’s a 12th-grade class and we’re freshmen,” said student Kelly Capobianco.
“[Mr. Wallace] told us we’re actually going to be rocket scientists,” said student Sydney Gobrick.
The district got involved in the project through the efforts of Dr. Sean Bentley, an associate professor of physics at Adelphi University.
Dr. Bentley was able to get the National Science Foundation math and science partnership grant through Adelphi, and originally ran the program at Westbury High School in Nassau County, which worked in connection with the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.
This year, two more schools became involved, with Riverhead being the only one in Suffolk County. Riverhead High School has been working with the Long Island Science Center and students have visited the science center about five times this year.
“Delia Gibbs, the director of the science center, has been very supportive,” Mr. Wallace said.
Math teacher Rob Maccone also is on hand for the class to help students with equations, Mr. Wallace said.
“We’re trying to promote interest in science at a younger age,” Dr. Bentley said. Nationwide, only 20 to 30 percent of students take any physics in high school. Students who take Regents physics in their freshman year can take Advanced Placement courses in physics and chemistry later on. If they wait until 12th grade to take Regents physics, they have little chance of ever taking those more advanced courses, he said.
In addition to making rockets, the physics students will also enter a “Rube Goldberg” competition, for which they will design and build machines or gadgets that take many steps to achieve a simple goal. The high school’s own “Rube Goldberg” competition will take place Dec. 22. The winners of that contest can advance to a regional competition Feb. 12 at the Cradle of Aviation Museum and, if they succeed at that level, to a national competition on March 19 in Michigan.
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