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Rocket launches give middle schoolers a look at STEM careers

Aiden Sanchez, left, and Soren Briggs, from Menaul School, load their rocket onto a launchpad for the Air Force Research Laboratory STEM Academy's rocket launch Tuesday in Rio Rancho. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Aiden Sanchez, left, and Soren Briggs, from Menaul School, load their rocket onto a launchpad for the Air Force Research Laboratory STEM Academy’s rocket launch Tuesday in Rio Rancho. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

RIO RANCHO – A member of the launch team checked the weather before giving the go-ahead for the countdown.

It was windy, but the sky was clear.

Spotters watched as the rocket soared high into the air. There was a little anxiety on the ground, but then cheers erupted when the parachute opened and a recovery team awaited the landing. Members of the rocket team weren’t from NASA. They weren’t at Cape Canaveral or a few hours down the road at Spaceport America.

They were middle school students participating in the Air Force Research Laboratory’s STEM Academy annual rocket launch.

“I’ve always loved science, so this is, like, the best thing ever,” said Cleveland Middle School eighth grader Josilyn Bernard, 13. “It’s science all day, instead of science for an hour. I like shooting the rockets off and then trying to see where they are going to land. Where is it going? How far is it going to go?”

That is the reaction AFRL STEM Academy director Ronda Cole Harmon wants from the 225 students from 10 schools participating on a blustery Tuesday morning.

“We’re having these students try on the hats of rocket scientists,” she said. “But they’re also engineers. They’re team members. They’re doing some fun things.”

The students assembled their rockets before taking them to the launchpad. They added the parachutes and altimeters, which measure how high the rockets go. And they connected the pieces of the rockets together.

Cleveland Middle School eighth grader Shawn Calt said it takes “quite a bit” of work.

“We have different teams doing different things,” the 13-year-old student said.

Aaliyah Valencia, left, and Katrina Chavez of San Felipe Pueblo watch a rocket take off during the Air Force Research Laboratory STEM Academy's rocket launch Tuesday in Rio Rancho. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Aaliyah Valencia, left, and Katrina Chavez of San Felipe Pueblo watch a rocket take off during the Air Force Research Laboratory STEM Academy’s rocket launch Tuesday in Rio Rancho. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

And Harmon said the teams had done a good job. Through 12 launch attempts, there were only two misfires. Only once did a parachute fail to open properly.

“It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong,” Harmon assured a team after a misfire. There would be other attempts to launch the rockets, she said.

But the work wasn’t over after the rockets were launched. Recovery teams used GPS to find the rockets and collect data.

“We’ll analyze our data to see how high their rocket went, what their range was and how this compares to the simulation data (that was run before the rocket launched),” Harmon said of a five-hour session the academy will have with the students later in the fall semester. “Did the model that we have really predict what the real world is about? If not, why? How can we make that model better to match what happened in the real world?”

She said activities such as the rocket launch inspire students to think about careers in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math.

Peralta Elementary School sixth grader Riley Dumas, 12, was already thinking about a STEM career as she awaited her team’s launch.

“I really like this because I get to experience science,” she said. “And I want to be an engineer when I grow up. And I get to understand how rockets work and how they launch.”

Cleveland Middle School science teacher Jess Popp said the activity gets students out of the classroom and “out in the field.”

“They get to apply the physics we’ve been talking about,” he said. “They can actually do something hands-on – launch rockets. I think I’m having as much fun as, or more fun than, the kids are.”

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