Serving Preschool Through 8th Grade in the San Francisco East Bay Since 1962

The Magic of Astrogration Week

Stephanie Hough, Middle School Science Faculty
The natural wonder and awe that accompanies humans’ exploration of space is the undercurrent that drives the magic of Astrogation Week in 6th grade.
The integrated content and project-based lessons bring the unit—History of Space Exploration—to life for my students.
The unit begins with a study of early rockets, from the ancient Chinese use of fire arrows, to the invasion of the Mongolian army as a method to spread human innovation. During our study of the history of flight and space exploration, we focus on the 1950s space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. We learn about the test pilots, the X-planes, and the original Mercury 7 astronauts. The intensity of the students’ curiosity and awe is palpable in the classroom as we watch the original Project Mercury test flights.
Throughout the unit, hands-on activities and design/building projects steer students toward the culmination of this unit: a week of immersion we call Astrogation Week. In math, students are on a “mission to mars” in which they have to pack a limited storage container and calculate the volume of their material; in Language Arts, the science fiction writing project allows the students to draw from their own imagination; in PE, they go through astronaut physical training; and in Expressive Arts they build a promotional video for NASA. Each class reinforces and integrates what students are learning in science, creating a seamless learning experience.

On the last day of Astrogation Week, students present research on their assigned mission, with the model rocket they have built, to their parents and faculty. The presentation traces the journey from Sputnik to SpaceX’s recent launch of the Falcon 9, and the pride in their knowledge is evident as students enthusiastically speak about their mission. After the presentation, students head up to the field for a launch of their own freestyle water rocket—a chance for them to show their knowledge of stable flight and ability to design a rocket, test its stability, iterate their design, and enjoy the success as their rocket launches into the sky.

The beauty of Astrogation week lies in the true immersion of all things space-related, and the diversity of topics that can be incorporated into lessons on space exploration. As we mix up black powder in the lab and build our own air-launched rockets, students not only learn the history of human flight, the science of aerodynamics, and design and engineering practices—but natural curiosity, success, failure, perseverance, iteration, and teamwork.