Community Connections

Rocket Ecology: a Launching Pad to Water Resources

by Tom Jones, MinnAqua Liaison

May 2010

Launching RocketMinnAqua Liaison Tom Jones launching a rocket in McGregor, MN

Rocket Ecology is a complete misnomer. The class is really an introduction to the effects of humans on water resources. The rocket part just makes it more fun!


The class was created by Tom Jones of Aitkin Fisheries to be a part of the Big Sandy Water Institute (BSWI). BSWI is a summer program sponsored by McGregor Community Education. It is a series of one and two day classes focused on water resources. Some of the classes are mostly recreational, like swimming lessons, and others are mostly educational. Most of the participants attend the McGregor public schools, and range in age from 8 to 14.

BWSI Group Launching a rocketBWSI group launching a rocket


The 2009 class started with a morning of rocket launches. Rockets were equipped with miniature digital cameras that would take photos of the surrounding areas. The class traveled to three sites that were picked to be near human disturbances to surface waters. Disturbances ranged from agriculture and timber harvest at rural sites to impervious surfaces and pollution point sources nearer to town.

At each site, we made three to five launches. Pictures were downloaded into a laptop, and brought back to the school’s computer lab. They were projected onto a screen, and students took turns identifying human disturbances that could affect surface water.

rocket view of McGregorRocket view of McGregor, MN

During the second part of the class we used an EnviroScape to demonstrate how human activities can affect water quality. The EnviroScape is a pre-formed model of a watershed with human and natural environments already designated on the model. A volunteer lead a discussion with the group about watersheds using the habitats found on the model.

For the third part of the program the youth went back to the computers where they used satellite photos on Google to identify human disturbances in Minnesota, the United States, and around the world. Students were asked to find at least two different images of human disturbances in Minnesota and outside of Minnesota. A few examples were picked from each step to put up on the main screen and discuss as a group.

Wiring the RocketTom Jones working with a youth to wire the camera to the rocket.


Some things worked great, and some things didn’t.

  • The rocket launches were very entertaining. All of the students were invited to participate in different parts of launching and recovering the rockets, and they were all very eager.
  • A lot of time was spent driving between sites. To reduce driving time and increase launching times, Tom Jones is offering a rocket building class for parents and students a few days before Rocket Ecology. That will allow more time for launching student’s rockets and the camera rocket, and less time driving around.
  • The EnviroScape presentation will be improved by using student observations based on the images from the rockets for the land use and impacts highlighted on the watershed model.
  • Finally, the computer lab time was too long. Students got bored after finding one or two sites in Minnesota, and attention and discipline began suffering soon after. In 2010, students will only be asked to find one example of degradation in Minnesota and one outside of Minnesota.
recovering a rocketBWSI youth recovering a rocket after it lands.


Overall this class was a hit with the students and the BWSI staff & volunteers. Seeing the local landscape from a birds-eye view and interpreting our findings hit home with many of the participants. Without even realizing it - the participants had engaged in hands-on science leading to deeper knowledge and appreciation for our fragile aquatic ecosystems. Tom and the BWSI staff, volunteers, and participants are looking forward to the rocket launches this coming summer.


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