Rockets and the Benefits of Failure: Project-based Homeschooling

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 6, 2013.

Rockets are all the rage in my house. When my six-year-old asked for a rocket for Christmas, I thought he would fly it around the house a couple of weeks and then throw it in one of the plastic toy bins, a.k.a. the black holes where the less dazzling (not new) toys end up.

Fortunately, the little set of U.S. rockets that my husband ordered him has captivated his imagination. On the back of the package there is a description of each rocket, and my six-year-old decided he liked the Apollo Saturn V the best.

As with most subjects my son becomes interested in, I’m learning just how ignorant I am. Not knowing much about the space program, I didn’t know that this was the rocket that took us to the moon, but I’m having fun learning about it.

My son wanted to make a model of the Saturn V just like we did with the Titanic a few weeks ago, so one day we set out to do that. It took all my will power to not find a long mailing tube that would make the task much easier. Instead, I listened to my son’s idea on how to make it.

Building a rocket proved to be much harder than building the Titanic because he wanted to use the recycled cereal and frozen pizza boxes we had saved. I knew that they would be hard to roll up since they had creases in them, and I can’t say I was enthusiastic. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood to be crafty that day. I really wanted to find some tubes.

We finished part of the rocket, but then it sat in a corner of our activity room for a few weeks. I asked my son occasionally if he wanted to work on it, and he always said no, so I wondered if he was losing interest or was he picking up on my lackluster attitude?

Finally, he did want to finish it. It took two mornings, and I did most of the work because it was complicated. What held me back in the first place was wanting my son to do more of the work, but after awhile, I realized it’s okay to take over when he really needs me to. It was his idea, his materials, but he didn’t know how to make it work.

The finished product looks cool, and it’s almost as tall as my son. We painted it too. After all that work, I appreciated learning about the Apollo missions even more. We read books from the library about rockets, being an astronaut and the infamous Apollo 13 mission.

I was delighted to find a Discovery Channel’s documentary series on Netflix about the NASA missions titled “When We Left Earth,” which starts from the beginning and takes the viewer all the way to the creation of the International Space Station. (Netflix is a homeschooling mom’s best friend.)

My husband and I watched it with both boys. It was complicated, and the three-year-old busied himself with toys through much of it, but the six-year-old watched all of it and seemed to get something out it.

I was riveted. The only direct experience I’ve had with the NASA missions was watching the Challenger blow up live when I was home sick from school at the age of eleven.

What impressed me most about the missions is how they are a perfect example of project-based learning, but in this case, I guess you could call it project-based Life. NASA started with sending up unmanned rockets. Then they sent up a chimpanzee. Then they sent one man, Alan Shepard, into space. It was a slow yet steady process of trial and error until we made it to the moon. Now we have a robot on Mars and a space station where astronauts work year-round.

Little by little, they experimented, tinkered, made mistakes — huge, fatal, catastrophic mistakes — but they learned from them, and they kept improving. It’s a lesson I’m trying to teach my son: just because you fail, don’t give up. Just because you don’t like your artwork, don’t scream and cry, think of a better way to do it. Learn from your mistakes.

I’ve been trying to find examples of adults who have worked through problems so that my son could see that this is part of life, and I can’t thank NASA and the Discovery Channel enough for giving me a perfect example.

My son probably won’t grow up to do anything as lofty as working at the space station, but I want him to know that whatever he choses to do, life will throw obstacles in his way. Mistakes and failure are inevitable, but we must keep going. “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed,” says Michael Jordan.

After completing the Saturn V model, my three-year-old asked us to build him a rocket too. Having lost all enthusiasm for building rockets, I insisted on using a tube, but drats, it keeps falling over. “My rocket is wider, Mommy, so it doesn’t tip over. That’s why we should have used the cardboard like we did with mine.”

I’ve learned my lesson. Next time I’ll listen to my little rocket scientist.

Top two photos: You can see the final product and my son documenting his work with his camera.

Collage: During the process – We used recycled cereal and pizza boxes, toilet paper tubes and some thicker poster paper for the body. Later, we covered it with white paper. The tip of the rocket is an old, plastic straw from a sippy cup…an idea my son had before we even started making the rocket!

Left: We also made a rocket one day out of blocks!

Below Right: The three-year-old’s rocket that, thanks to me, falls over.

11 thoughts on “Rockets and the Benefits of Failure: Project-based Homeschooling

  1. A cool book you could read to share some factoids with your son is Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. It’s not at a six year old’s level (nor, I imagine, would you want him to read it all. Some of it isn’t really kid-appropriate. 🙂 ) but it’s a funny and enthusiastic exploration of all the quirky details that have to be considered to make everyday life work in space. There’s also a fair amount of history about the US and Russian space programs. I had a lot of fun reading it!


  2. Haha, I love that your tube version falls over *and* that you admit that his way is better!! It’s a learning curve for adults to just step back and let it all roll the way it will, so make sure to congratulate yourself on your project work too! I also love that your son is documenting his own work. And my goodness, the 3yo’s smile. Those cheeks!!


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