Rocket Activity 3....2....1....PUFF!

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Instructor Guide/Manual , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Activity
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This paper rocket activity is part of the NASA Rocket Educator Guide ( that emphasizes hands-on science, prediction, data collection and interpretation, teamwork, and problem solving.  Students will construct small “indoor” paper rockets, determine their flight stability, and launch them by blowing air through a drinking straw.  Students will then test their designs through trials, gather and analyze data, and then try to improve their rocket design to get greater distance. 

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 5
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 3
  • Upper Elementary
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

3-PS2-1 Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object.

Clarification Statement: Examples could include an unbalanced force on one side of a ball can make it start moving; and, balanced forces pushing on a box from both sides will not produce any motion at all.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to one variable at a time: number, size, or direction of forces. Assessment does not include quantitative force size, only qualitative and relative. Assessment is limited to gravity being addressed as a force that pulls objects down.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
To meet this performance expectation, students create a paper rocket and carry out investigations to improve the distance their rocket travels. To aligned this activity to the performance expectation, allow students the time to explore working with balanced and unbalanced forces. Prior to the lesson, it is suggested that the teacher drop an object to the floor and ask the students, “Why did it fall? What caused it to stop falling? If you were to make a paper airplane, what could you do to make the airplane move without tossing it with your hands? Would the plane keep going forever? What would make the plane stop?” Another suggestion is to expose students to a picture/video of a tight rope walker and discuss the importance of the center of mass and how balanced and unbalanced forces are at play.

3-5-ETS1-2 Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
After students design their rockets and have their first "liftoff", they are encouraged to improve their rocket design after holding distance trials. Students are provided data sheets that outline the procedures for each rocket test. However, it is suggested that students use a notebook or journal to more formally write down what worked and what did not work as they projected their rockets. Students can draw and write their reflections how how the things they changed resulted in different outcomes. It is also suggested that the teacher clearly state the criteria and constraints of the problem before the students begin to design their rockets. The criteria being that the students will create paper rockets and design them to move the greatest distance by blowing air through a drinking straw. It is suggested that the students understand a constraint could be they can give only one breath of air through the straw to launch the rocket. Teachers can consider a different alternative to the students 'blowing' to launch their rockets to be sure it is a fair test as everyone may 'blow' differently into the straw. To create a fair test and a more consistent launch would be to create a 2 liter bottle launch mechanism by 1) emptying the bottle 2) the teacher drills or cuts a hole in the bottle lid 3) putting a tube in the lid hole that will also firmly attach to the straw, and attaching it, 4) dropping a mass on the 2 liter bottle to launch the rocket. Science Olympian has guidelines for this type of consistent launching. Although the word constraints is not specifically mentioned, the list of materials the students can use is listed in the guide.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Rocket Activity 3....2.....1... PUFF! includes a paper rocket test report where the students are actively engaged in launching their rockets and recording their measurements on the data sheet. Students will use the data they collect to redesign their rocket to improve the distance it travels. It is suggested that students reflect on what they changed each time by writing and/or drawing pictures in their journals of what they did differently each trial. Did each trial use the same angle to launch? It is suggested to explicitly encourage the students to use their evidence, e.g. "we changed this one thing and this was the result......"

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
After students launch their rocket three times at the same launch angle and measure how far it traveled, they are given the challenge to redesign a new rocket. Students should be given ample time to experiment with their rockets to see what worked best. They are then asked to write down a prediction of how far their newly designed rocket will fly. After recording their data gain, students should continue to analyze if changes they made improved the flight distance.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
To best align to this core idea, students should be encouraged to reflect and write down what they did during each trial. More space may be needed than is available on the Paper Rocket Test Report so it is suggested the student reflect any changes of what worked and what didn't work in a notebook or journal. Did they change the nose of the rocket? Did they change the amount of tape they used?

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
To best align to this crosscutting concept it is suggested that students reflect on what they wrote in their notebooks/journals after each trial test. Did they change the shape of the nose? How did this effect the distance the rocket traveled? Was the weight shifted by using more or less scotch tape on the rocket? Did the center of pressure (from the opening activity of finding the stability of the rocket) differ from the any changes that were made to the design? Did each design change result in an observed effect?

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This resource aligns with the conceptual shifts advocated by the NGSS, with elements of the Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts working together to support students in making sense of phenomena. Students are encouraged to plan, create, test and improve their rocket designs giving them experience working with the engineering design process.

  • Instructional Supports: Various extensions are included for students with high interests or who have already met the performance expectations. It is suggested that all students engage and reflect in the first extension of investigating the fin size and placement. Students can plan ideas and then create and test their rockets adjusting one variable at a time. Struggling students may need teacher support with comprehension of the directions or with taping the paper around the pencils. The vocabulary terms ‘Center of Mass’ and ‘Center of Pressure’ might be difficult for third graders to understand but it is important that they do understand the rocket needs to be balanced. An extra rocket pattern is included for thicker pencils for students to use if the standard pencil pattern is too small to work with.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Although there are guiding questions included for each step of the activities, I would suggest the teacher create a rubric for the students to guide them in their learning. It may also be beneficial if the students used notebooks or journals so they have more room to reflect on their rocket designs through words and pictures as they are following the engineering design process of imagine, plan, create, test and improve.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: There is no technological component to this resource.